Mid-80s Marillion: a religion to fans, a punchline to others. They were deemed so unfashionable in the era of The Smiths, the Mary Chain and The Cure that those who’d seen the light were only galvanized by the opprobrium. To hear Misplaced Childhood – the band’s masterpiece and biggest seller – now, out of context, liberated from playground peer pressure, is to recognise a truly great concept album. It’s one that believes 41 minutes of rock music can – like a film or book – aim for the stars and present a story full of emotion, poetry and, above all, drama. It’s way stronger than more revered milestones like, say, Quadrophenia (which it references with a cheeky ‘rain on me’), where for your handful of peak moments you have to wade through loads of undisciplined musical waffle. And the misconception that prog is all about indulgent jamming and noodling? There’s zero fat here. Everything lasts exactly as long as feels right.
As the leader of the neo-prog pack, it’s lean, slick and makes every punch count. Produced by Chris Kimsey, who’d honed his skills with the Stones and had more recently delivered Killing Joke’s most powerful and palatable album Night Time, it’s a textbook example of how to get a group’s individual voice across without either diluting them or alienating the general listener. It sounds delicious, recorded as it was at Berlin’s Hansa Tonstodio. All things considered, it’s a wonder it was ever so uncool in ’85.
It’s still almost impossible to convert sceptics though. One trick to whet appetites is to declare that if Sweet Thing/ Candidate from Diamond Dogs was a whole album, it’d pan out like this.
Marillion back then were compared to Gabriel-era Genesis, even if they thought they were just as inspired by The Who. Again, though, Misplaced Childhood is never frilly rock opera. It builds, flows, makes its own sense. When there are linked tracks, repeated motifs or instrumental passages, they contribute to the whole. If Genesis had been making it up as they went along, Marillion were in the lucky position of possessing the map they’d handed down. There are climaxes, breathers, more climaxes. It’s a design classic.
They’d limbered up with Script For A Jester’s Tear and Fugazi, neither of which were shy of histrionic melodrama, but the focus is sharper here. Fish gives a cavalcade of confessionals that might seem like a case of too much information, but hey, let’s say he foresaw presciently the selfie age. He barks of lost love and idealism, the pressures of success and, ultimately acceptance, mirrored in the music’s rousing final upswing. It’s not unlike out-takes from the 70s David Essex movie Stardust come to life. Fish’s diary details – the references to Edinburgh and his own relationships, like the composite that is Kayleigh – are so intimate that, counter-intuitively, they reach Everyman status.
After the finely wrought love pangs of crossover hits Kayleigh and Lavender, Bitter Suite (in five concise sections) takes us to the heart of the self-pity. Heart Of Lothian cracks a window and lets the air in. We’re led inexorably forward to Blind Curve, the next multi-part mini-symphony. Fish may be wrestling with his demons, but Steve Rothery’s guitar and Mark Kelly’s keyboards are giving him shoulder rubs.
Prog is often criticised for lacking restraint, but this floats on exemplary taste. As the streamlined suspense reaches resolution, we’re lifted up by the double whammy of not one but two climactic anthems in Childhoods End? and White Feather. Imagine See softwareuiphraseguid=“13aab024-6e4c-4e29-9609-51f93d63323e”>SOFTWAREmark” gingersoftwareuiphraseguid=“d5764509-e232-4d8d-890c-bcf8e98a384d” id=“417e21d9-6964-4b32-a748-d42f1cb77e9d”>Me Feel Me with more than one idea and a fire in its eyes.
Fish claims to have written the lyrics during a 10-hour acid trip, in which case it’s bewildering how well it all hangs together. One must credit Kimsey and the band with their careful oversight – as remastering jobs go, Steven Wilson can rarely have sat down at a cleaner desk. This four-disc/Blu-ray deluxe box set gives us the album, then two discs of a previously unreleased Utrecht live concert (including this album played in sequence), plus demos and B-sides. As ever, Wilson plays his hand perfectly, but this time he’s been dealt a royal flush.
As Fish howls of obscure poets, primordial phantoms, train drivers necking cans of lager, love songs with no validity and children drenched in napalm, his cry of ‘I can’t take any more’ recalls Peter Finch in the Sidney Lumet film Network, refracted through Thomas Jerome Newton.
The monumental Misplaced Childhood should be found again.