The tipping point for Marillion came with ‘Mexican Night’. It was late summer in 1990, and the band had spent several increasingly frustrating weeks holed up in Stanbridge Farm Studios, a residential facility outside the English seaside resort of Brighton, attempting to write their second album with new singer Steve ‘H’ Hogarth.
The breezy mood surrounding the band as they entered Stanbridge had evaporated as the weeks dragged on. Marillion’s unhurried, jam-based approach to songwriting clashed with Hogarth’s more traditional modus operandi. Tensions were rising, and the atmosphere was getting fractious. “No one hit anyone else, but we did have a few words,” says bassist Pete Trewavas. “Steve was getting pissed off: ‘What’s the point of me being here?’ I suppose he was also trying to stake his claim on where he would fit in the band.”
Then came Mexican Night. The plan was for the band and their lyricist, John Helmer, to get together in Stanbridge, deck themselves out in ‘bandido’-style fancy dress and stuff themselves with Mexican food in an attempt to alleviate the tedium and ease the pressure. It wasn’t the first themed night they’d had, and none of them had worked. The omens weren’t good for this one either: there had been a row earlier in the day.
“There was a bit of an ugly atmosphere and none of us wanted to be there, but there was no getting out of it,” says keyboard player Mark Kelly. “Then someone discovered there were magic mushrooms growing in the field outside, which we naturally took. We had a great time. It was a good bonding experience. Everybody felt much better about things after that.”
The slog wasn’t over for Marillion, though; they still had an album to write. But that psilocybin-fuelled dinner felt like the point where they turned a corner.
The album that emerged from that frequently tortuous period, Holidays In Eden, remains an outlier in Marillion’s back catalogue. It was the sound of a band who had reluctantly acceded to their record label EMI’s desire to make a ‘pop’ record in order to boost their career. It failed in that respect, yet as the current reissue of the album shows, it acted as a crucial stepping stone between what Marillion were and what they would become.
“What I love about Holidays In Eden is that it sounded like a proper, polished album to me,” says Steve Hogarth. “I’d waited all my life to be involved in something proper and polished.”
Hogarth had replaced original singer Fish in 1989 after the latter’s acrimonious departure. His entrance into Marillion had been smoother than he had anticipated. “The Seasons End tour had been successful, the response from fans was incredible and we were getting on well,” he remembers. “I was expecting some kickback, but I didn’t really experience it.”
There was just one issue, though. The band’s longtime label, EMI, were concerned about what Mark Kelly calls “a downward trajectory sales-wise”. EMI made it very clear they wanted Marillion’s new album to feature three hit singles.
“They were thinking, ‘Well, what are we doing with this band? And more to the point, what’s this band doing for us?’” says Trewavas. “If we didn’t have another big hit soon, the writing would be on the wall.”
“We were prepared to give it a go,” adds Kelly. “The biggest problem was that we weren’t very good at writing hit singles.”
That may have been the biggest problem, but they were about to encounter another unforeseen one. Some of the music that ended up on Seasons End had pre-dated Hogarth’s arrival, while the singer brought his own ideas to the table for the album. But now they were effectively starting from scratch. “It was the difficult second album all over again,” says Kelly with a sigh.
The band entered Stanbridge in mid-1990 with a blank page. It was a reflection of their mood that they were paying someone just to be on hand if they needed booze or cigarettes fetching from the nearest shop. “We went in there in a good frame of mind,” says Hogarth. “It was our intention to go there for two or three weeks. And we went in there in June and came out in December.”
Initially, the band knew what they wanted – or at least what they didn’t want. “There were certain things that Steve H didn’t want to revisit from Marillion’s past, and certain things we didn’t want to revisit either,” says Trewavas. “We wanted it to be a clean slate, and for the band to move on.”
Still, there were some reservations about just how far they wanted to move on. “I think certain members of the band were becoming increasingly scared that this new guy was going to start pulling them in the direction of pop music,” says Hogarth.
Musically, Marillion’s songwriting process was relaxed at best. When they weren’t playing pool or drinking, Kelly, Trewavas, guitarist Steve Rothery and drummer Ian Mosley got together to jam then try to find ways of fitting together the bits that they liked. The pragmatic Hogarth preferred to construct songs: verse, chorus, middle eight.
“It became apparent where each party was coming from and it was completely different,” says Kelly. “You’ve got H going, ‘Let’s work hard, let’s put the hours in.’ At the other end, you’ve got Steve Rothery going, ‘I don’t really feel it today, I’ll wait for inspiration to strike.’ You can’t knock either method, because both work, just not necessarily at the same time.”
“Everybody had a sort of an agenda that I wasn’t party to,” says Hogarth. “It wasn’t really about songwriting, it was about doing their thing and getting their musical reward. I couldn’t just grab their ideas and go, ‘Look, I can finish this song, I just need the middle eight and it’s done.’”
That didn’t lessen the singer’s growing restlessness. “I think he found it more frustrating working with us than we did working with him,” says Kelly. “We were sitting around, drinking and playing pool, and he was just pulling his hair out: ‘What the fuck have I joined here? I just want to get on and make an album.’”
Mexican Night went some way to dispelling the agitation within the band, though Hogarth and his bandmates remained at a creative impasse. Eventually, it was suggested that the singer take a break from the studio to focus on writing lyrics while the others attempted to come up with some solid songs.
“I was sent home!” says Hogarth. “Looking back on it, I totally get it, but I was slightly hurt by it at the time. I felt excluded.”
The temporary separation helped to a degree. The singer returned a fortnight later with a set of revised lyrics, as well the foundation for The Party, the album’s vividly moody third track. His bandmates hadn’t been idle, repurposing unused music they’d come up with during their very last session with Fish for eventual album closer 100 Nights. Conversely, the band had been working on the song Holidays In Eden when Hogarth left. When he returned, they still hadn’t finished it. The creative breakthrough they needed remained elusive.
“There wasn’t a breakthrough at all,” says Hogarth. “There was just a feeling of, ‘Well, we’d better just stay here until something happens.’ It was a kind of process of attrition.”
The band’s A&R man, Nick Gatfield, was watching the costs of the album escalate with nothing to show for it. Gatfield, onetime sax player with Dexys Midnight Runners, announced that he would come to Stanbridge to check out progress. “He said, ‘Maybe I could see if I can help anywhere,’” recalls Trewavas. “We were, like, ‘Okay, what does that mean? Does that mean you’re interfering with what we’re doing? We didn’t really like that.’”
Despite the band’s reservations, Gatfield did have some constructive input. He pinpointed a track they’d been working on, the breezy love song No One Can, as a potential single – one of the three hits EMI had asked for.
“It had a nice guitar and keyboard figure, some nice sounding chords, and Steve put a great melody over it,” says Trewavas. “And the label was thinking, ‘Oh, this sounds very of the times, this could be pop music.’ Of course, that’s the last thing we wanted.” In the end, Marillion themselves realised they needed to call a halt to the interminable songwriting process and actually start recording these songs. “I think it was Ian who said, ‘We’re not paying for any more of this nonsense,’” recalls Trewavas.
With their lengthy stay at Stanbridge finally over, the band decamped to The Moles Club, a venue-come-studio in Bath, where they demoed the music they’d been working on. A trio of fanclub gigs at Moles in December 1990, under the name The Low-Fat Yoghurts, even saw them giving an airing to a handful of new songs, including No One Can, Waiting To Happen and a version of Splintering Heart with an intro that was gnarlier and more guitar-heavy than the one that would eventually open the album.
Marillion’s plans to record the album with Chris Kimsey, who had produced their twin commercial highpoints Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws, were thwarted by the Rolling Stones, who insisted Kimsey work on their live album, Flashpoint. Instead, when the band entered Hook End Manor in Oxfordshire in early 1991, it was with Christopher Neil, whose credits included Sheena Easton, Shakin’ Stevens and, more recently, Celine Dion. But it was the presence of Mike + The Mechanics on Neil’s CV that convinced EMI, if not Marillion, that he was the man for the job.
“I think the label thought, ‘Which prog rockers have had pop hits? Oh, Mike Rutherford. If we can do a Mike + The Mechanics with Marillion, we’ll have hits and get on the radio and make a lot of money,’” says Hogarth.
Neil himself played a blinder when convincing the band that he was the man for the job. The producer told Marillion that his son was a big fan of theirs. “He said, ‘If I fuck you up, he’ll never forgive me,’” says Hogarth. “I’m not sure if it was true or not, but that was the line that got him the gig, really.”
“Chris Neil reassured us that he wasn’t going to turn us into a pop band,” says Kelly. “And then proceeded to attempt to do it. I don’t blame him. That was his brief from the record label.”
Neil was a personable character, and the band got on well with him, even if his production sensibilities were only marginally less at odds with Marillion’s than Hogarth’s approach to songwriting had been. Neil was a studio pragmatist. His priority was to get a solid backing for the songs above all else. That wasn’t how the band were used to operating.
“I liked to experiment with sounds and textures on my keyboards, to give myself different options,” says Kelly. “But he had no time for it. I’d play something and he’d say, ‘No, that’s fine.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Actually, not for me it isn’t.’”
Marillion still only had one of the three singles EMI had insisted on, though Neil had a ready-made solution. He suggested they record a version of Dry Land, the title track from the one and only album from Hogarth’s pre-Marillion band How We Live.
“I’m not sure how he came across it, but he came pre-armed with the idea that we should cover it,” says Hogarth, who describes Dry Land as “a song about sexual tension rather than unrequited love – that feeling that perhaps something could happen with this person, but neither of you are going to say it.”
The new version retained the original’s structure and airy melody, though Marillion added their own character to it. However Steve Rothery, in particular, wasn’t comfortable with covering another band’s song. “Steve doesn’t like playing other people’s parts, and that song was based around a particular guitar pattern, a set of chords played in a specific way,” says Kelly. “But he put his stamp on, especially the solo.”
It was Neil, too, who came up with the idea for the third of the required triumvirate of potential hits. Rothery had played an echoey, U2-esque style guitar figure during one of the jamming sessions at Stanbridge, over which Hogarth sang lyrics from an unreleased How We Live track titled Simon’s Car, inspired by suave 60s TV presenter Simon Dee and featuring period-piece references to Sandie Shaw, David Hockney and The Avengers’ Emma Peel, among others. “It ended up on tape somewhere, and Chris heard it and loved it,” says Hogarth of the rough song.
Hogarth dialled back the explicit 60s iconography, turning the song into a hymn to an idealised woman: ‘She’s like the girl in the picture that he couldn’t afford.’ Crucially, though, he kept the original opening lines and initial vocal melody: ‘Cover my eyes/The light falls on her face.’
Neil had another suggestion. The band should take another song fragment – essentially Hogarth intoning a swooping ‘Hey’ – and merge it with the first part. The band titled the finished song Cover My Eyes (Pain And Heaven), even if the final version found Hogarth stretching the three-word subtitle over nine notes. Still, in the eyes of the producer, they had their three ‘hits’, although certain members of Marillion remain sceptical as to its merits. “We were stuck for time,” says Mark Kelly. “We needed a single.”
Cover My Eyes (Pain And Heaven) was released as the first single from Holidays In Eden on May 28, 1991, three weeks ahead of the album itself. Longtime fans were mildly perplexed by its unfamiliar, poppier sound, and the song peaked at No.34 in the UK charts – disappointing but far from catastrophic.
The next single, No One Can, was a safer bet. This soft-centred ballad had true crossover potential. It entered the charts at No.36, but began picking up radio airplay. EMI capitalised on this positive state of affairs by promptly diverting its promotional budget to Vanilla Ice’s latest single, Satisfaction. “And it flopped without trace!” says Mark Kelly of the US rapper’s track.
That didn’t help Marillion. Realising their error, the label re-redirected their budget to No One Can, but it was too late. Radio stations had moved on to something else. “I was hurt that No One Can wasn’t a huge hit,” says Steve Hogarth. “It still sounds like one to me.”
Holidays In Eden itself was received with a degree of suspicion by longtime Marillion fans on its release in June 1991. They were unhappy with the pop leanings of No One Can, third and final single Dry Land and Waiting To Happen, and the apparent lack of anything resembling the band’s knotty, proggy old sound. But the naysayers overlooked the likes of dramatic opening track Splintering Heart and the closing mini-suite consisting of This Town, The Rakes Progress and 100 Nights, both of which pointed towards the complex, atmospheric songs the band would produce in subsequent years. And it wasn’t like Marillion had never written a ‘pop’ song before anyway.
“Kayleigh wasn’t dissimilar to other things that were around in the charts at that time,” says Trewavas. “But because it was wrapped in this bigger concept, people forget that it was a nice little pop song.”
Although it peaked at No.7 in the UK chart, Holidays In Eden failed to arrest the downward commercial trajectory of Marillion’s recent albums. Live, the band’s pulling power wasn’t what it was either – a show at London’s Wembley Arena was curtained off halfway due to underwhelming ticket sales.
“It didn’t meet the label’s expectations,” admits Mark Kelly of Holidays In Eden. “But we did our bit – we delivered the album the record company wanted. If nothing else, it convinced us that, actually, we’re not a pop band. Trying to write hit singles isn’t for us.”
That would be borne out by Marillion’s next album, Brave, a record that was as intricate and opaque as its predecessor was glossy and straightforward. It was, says Pete Trewavas, a direct reaction to their experiences of making Holidays In Eden.
“One of the criticisms of Holidays In Eden isn’t that it’s too commercial, it’s that some of the songs lack a bit of depth. It doesn’t have the little bits of detail that some of our other albums have. That’s why, with Brave, we decided to rebalance that and have as much stuff in there as humanly possible.” Brave itself would fare even worse commercially than Holidays In Eden, though it successfully corrected the band’s drift pop-wards, at least in the eyes of their die-hard fans.
Today, Marillion look back on their sixth album with a detached fondness. Mark Kelly still loves Splintering Heart and 100 Nights. “This Town and Cover My Eyes not so much,” he says.
Steve Hogarth says he likes the album, though it’s “tainted” by the arduous process of making: “Putting the head of a horse on the body of a camel,” as he puts it.
“To some extent, EMI fucked it up,” claims the singer. “But looking back, I’m glad they did. Because if we’d had a huge hit with No One Can, that would have pigeonholed us in a place where we wouldn’t have been very comfortable at all, it would probably have eventually split the band up. And that would have meant that an awful lot of good music we wrote after that would never have been written, which would have been a shame.”
Originally printed in Prog Magazine #134