There’s a line in The Beatles’ The Ballad Of John And Yoko that reads ‘Pete Brown called to say/You can make it OK/You can get married in Gibraltar near Spain…’ It refers to the fact that perhaps rock’s most famous couple had married in the British protectorate on March 20, 1969, after discovering they couldn’t marry at sea or in Paris at such short notice. Before honeymooning in Amsterdam, the pair stayed overnight in Gibraltar’s The Rock Hotel.
This very same hotel now looms up over the sunbaked poolside area in which Prog finds itself. Aptly named, the giant monolithic limestone promontory for which Gibraltar is famous towers over our hotel, making the sweltering poolside and bar something of a suntrap. Also enjoying the surroundings is the reason we’re here – Steve Hogarth. He’s reclining on a lounger next to us, soaking up the sun, next to his family. It’s a far cry from chilly England, and Steve, his partner Linette and their youngest son, as well as Steve’s daughter Sofia and son Nial, are, like Prog, making the most of a long weekend in the sun.
But we’re not just here to get tanned. Earnest discussions are ongoing between Steve and his two eldest concerning the setlist for the evening’s gig; a gig that will take us into the very heart of Gibraltar’s rock. But before that, there’s enough time for Prog to take the cable car all the way to the top of the Rock to monkey around with the local inhabitants…
Above: Gibraltar’s famous rock-star hangout, The Rock Hotel.
The gig itself is a stormer. Inside St Michael’s Cave, high up inside the Rock, it’s just Steve Hogarth and a piano for the first half, and a mere six songs and a hilarious extract from the second volume of his memoirs, concerning a 37-hour flight to Mexico on which he falls foul of US air stewards over the simple request for a beer. The second half is party time as Big Big Train guitarist Dave Gregory joins him for a selection of covers (including The Ballad Of John And Yoko) and Marillion songs, before son Nial joins on percussion and later Sofia takes to the stage to show that dad’s not the only good singer in the family.
“I did the Gibraltar Literary Festival last summer,” Hogarth explains the next morning, as we once again make the most of the clement weather by the poolside bar. “Then they invited me to come over and read from the diary, but it slowly turned into a gig when they also asked if I’d sing and play. That was in a little place called The King’s Chapel, one of the oldest buildings in town. As soon as I got offstage, I said to the organisers that I’d love to come back and do another one as I’d enjoyed it so much. So this was the consequence of that conversation.”
It was certainly the most unique concert Prog has attended, and let’s face it, we’ve been to some odd ones. St. Michael’s Cave is part of a network of limestone caves situated in the Upper Nature Reserve of the Rock. Long thought to have been bottomless, one apocryphal tale suggests that Gibraltar’s famous Barbary apes made their way from the African continent via a 15-mile subterranean tunnel.
Looking around the spacious cavern at the occasionally dripping stalactites bathed in blue light, one can only grin in agreement with Hogarth when he concludes from the stage: “This is like playing a gig inside Roger Dean’s mind.”
Above: Playing live “inside Roger Dean’s mind”. Photo by Alan Jones.
For someone so well versed in Marillion live shows, it’s apparent tonight that the audience is also somewhat oddly attired. Given the backing of various official Gibraltan bodies and businesses, the front few rows are filled with the well-dressed and affluent. But as soon as Hogarth delves into Ocean Cloud and Runaway, it’s clear there are plenty of vocal Marilli-fans in attendance.
“That was terrific,” says Hogarth, nodding in agreement that the dress code wasn’t quite as relaxed as you’d expect at your average Marillion show.
What, Prog wonders, is it like trying to find the right dynamic for such an audience? “It comes naturally,” he smiles. “I check people out, I try to get a feeling for what kind of crowd it is. Naturally, as a human being I respond to whatever vibration comes at me, and if it’s a good crowd, it’s going to lift me. It’s one of those obvious things to state but I don’t know how many people truly realise what an effect a crowd can have on an artist. You can completely change your show, even an ordinary show that has a setlist and is really rigid. You can completely change what a performer does by what you give to them, because they’re people and they’re just like you in that it lifts them and they get into another place, and they become more relaxed because they know you’re up for it.
“But at the same time, these shows are much more fluid and volatile than that. I went on stage last night with a setlist for the first half of the show, which was just me, and I hardly played any of it. I went on, I did about the first three and then it just wandered off. I ended up playing Easter, which Dave and Nial were supposed to be playing on in the second half. Because someone had asked for it, I thought, ‘Sod it, I’ll do it.’”
One chucklesome moment was when Hogarth introduced 80 Days from Marillion’s 1997 album This Strange Engine. Relating a tale of looking out of a dressing room window and seeing a long queue of Marillion fans in the damp and cold outside, the singer felt compelled to write a song to reflect his empathy and gratitude. Several years later, when Marillion’s website polled fans for their favourite and least favourite songs, 80 Days found itself in the bin!
“It’s true!” he roars with laughter. “What a pile of poo that is! But what can you do with the punters?”
Still, at two and a half hours, the gig was more than value for money. And, indeed, probably longer than many Marillion shows these days.
We set that crowdfunding thing rolling to start with and they said that the template upon which they set Pledge up was ours.
“Well, I went to Cologne and did a piano and voice show that ran for three hours not that long ago. But there was such a good atmosphere I just kept going, and they kept egging me on and I kept carrying on, and on it went. A Marillion show is so programmed in its nature because we need so many sounds. It’s sort of sonically diverse from moment to moment in a song, and we can’t really expect Mark [Kelly, keyboards] to have all that down, and be able to chop and change from moment to moment with it.
“I know last night was slightly different because I had the kids up, but normally it’s just me, and that gives me the opportunity and the sudden freedom to create something volatile that can go anywhere at any moment, like balancing on the head of a pin almost. I can even stop a song in the middle and go, ‘Oh, I won’t do that, let’s do another one.’ [Which indeed he does when he botches Essence and, giggling like a naughty schoolboy, opts to play Fantastic Place instead.] I’ve been known to do that because I’ve just got halfway through and thought, ‘Do you know what, this isn’t happening. Let’s do another one.’ Things you couldn’t dream of doing with a band.”
Obviously, the mention of ‘the kids’ – Nial and Sofia – indicates a rightly proud dad… “I was looking at Nial beaming away and I think by halfway through the gig he’d kind of got his own fan club going on,” he smiles. “People were shouting and screaming at the mention of his name, which is cool. I shouted over to him, ‘You’ve got a fan club.’
“Adding Sofia to the gig happened at the hotel, the day before yesterday. It hadn’t even entered my head that she should get involved. We were just talking about it, the fact that Nial and I would be together. I said, ‘It’s a shame you couldn’t have got up and sung as well.’ She said, ‘Well, I will.’ I said, ‘What, seriously?’ She said, ‘Well, I’ll get up there, yeah, I’ll sing.’ I thought that was great. That was very last-minute-dot-com, getting her up there. So I took her down to soundcheck and I think her voice has improved since the last time I heard her sing. It sounded lovely, she’s got a lovely tone.”
He’s evidently not a pushy showbiz parent then? “No, I remain tight-lipped and silent over all of it because it almost feels like it would be as much of a sin to push them towards music as it would be to push them away. You’ve just got to let them decide. I mean the thing is, if you’re going to be a musician professionally, you’ve got to want that so much because it’s such a tough path to follow.
“You can’t be a dilettante about that – you’ve got to have a fire in your belly for it or you’ll be discouraged, you’ll never go all the way, because it’s such a tough and difficult path. So I would never actively push them towards rock music because I know how hard it is, and I know your chances of success are minuscule, even if you’re great.”
Above: Hogarth puts the ‘rock’ in Rock of Gibraltar. Photo by Alan Jones.
Of course, today is a vastly different playing field to the one where Marillion first ventured forth some 36 years ago. Indeed, even wildly different to 26 years ago when Hogarth took over the mantle as lead singer. And it’s a playing field that Marillion themselves have helped forge, not least by taking on their own business affairs and inventing crowdfunding with the release of the fan-funded Anoraknophobia in 2001.
“We invented crowdfunding, yeah, without really thinking about it too much,” Hogarth says.
It’s interesting, then, Prog considers, that we received an email recently stating that Marillion are teaming up with the Pledge organisation for their forthcoming album, on which they are currently at work.
“Am I allowed to talk about that?” he asks, momentarily startled. “Well, if you know about it, I must be. We set that thing rolling to start with and they said that the template upon which they set Pledge up was ours. But they said, ‘We took that from you. We looked at what you’d done and thought, this is something that we could broaden out and we could expand, and we’ve got this now to a point where we’ve got offices all over the world and we can do things for you that you can’t do yourself.’
“That was sort of a double-edged sword because I was thinking, ‘Well, if we’ve invented this, and we’ve invented it in conjunction with – and arguably because of – our fans, then are they going to feel betrayed if we stepped to one side and do this?’ I mean, they’re not a corporation, they’re quite a small operation, but they’re a bigger operation than ours. So that was a dilemma.
“But on the other side of it there was the fact that because we’d been doing this on our own for a while, we were very conscious of the limitations of trying to do it with the number of people involved in our operation. We had got to a point where we thought, ‘Well, for this next release we have a choice. We either employ a whole load more people ourselves and take on some extra offices and do all of that, and make our own operation bigger, or we can go to this, we can have the benefit of their experience and their knowledge.’ And as I say, they’ve got offices in other countries as well, which we wouldn’t have.”
The results, we suggest, will be as fascinating as always.
“Exactly,” he nods. “We thought, ‘If we put our heads together, the two of us thinking outside the box, we might create something bigger than the sum of its parts.’”
As ever with Marillion, one suspects he’s right. Watch this space…