Episode 41. Songs for life No. 1
On 30th November 1979, Pink Floyd released The Wall. A double album based around Roger Waters’ own experiences of abandonment and isolation and the single taken from it, Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2, not only surprised many people when it charted but also held the coveted ‘Christmas No.1’ slot in the UK. It was a milestone for Progressive Rock and a snub to all of its critics but the reality was, Prog Rock had been dying in the UK for the last three years and as the new decade emerged, would seem to be passing into the history books. By 1983, most of the dinosaurs had become extinct, overtaken in popularity by Punk and the New Romantics or simply by moving into a different market. Rick Wakeman had left Yes and the band had let Trevor Horn’s production overshadow their music on 90125; Genesis were being booed offstage while trying to promote their art-rock album Abacab and then reinvented themselves by turning to Pop with the self-titled album Genesis. Meanwhile, Floyd had imploded when his fellow band mates and record label threatened to sue Roger Waters and the big hope for Prog had turned out to be a let-down for the enthusiasts when members of ELP, Yes and King Crimson released their debut album, Asia. It was a great album, sold millions but it was commercial AOR, not Prog.
However, at the same time as Floyd were recording The Wall, a new band from the small market town of Aylesbury in England were forming and it was they who would single-handedly bring back to life the UK Prog Rock scene a few years later. Marillion were all Prog Rock enthusiasts and refused to believe that the genre was dead and after recording a demo that found its way to the BBC’s Friday Rock Show, were invited to perform on it. That led to a contract with EMI and their first record, a single called Market Square Heroes, was released in 1982. Produced by David Hitchcock who had also produced Genesis’ Foxtrot album, the B-Side was a 17:15 epic akin to Supper’s Ready and with lead singer Fish wearing make-up on stage and acting out characters, the Genesis comparison was obvious. The media jumped on it, declaring Marillion to be nothing more than a Genesis copy band but it sold reasonably well and Prog fans liked it.
In those days, a record company invested in a band. The normal record contract from a major label would be for five albums and the label supported the band financially until such time as the promotion and marketing would make the band profitable. The first album required heavy investment by the record company and providing sales were adequate and the label could see the band’s profile building, they would be happy to proceed with a second album and advance the band more money. This, EMI did with Marillion when their first album, Script For A Jester’s Tear, was released in March 1983 and peaked at No. 7 in the UK. Fugazi, the second album, was released in March 1984 but the recording was fraught with problems as they went through a succession of drummers and the producer Nick Tauber wasn’t suitable for the band’s music. The resulting record sounded too polished and the song writing was sub-par in places. It charted at No. 5 but sold less than its predecessor and it was now make-or-break time for EMI. This again was normal for bands signed to major labels back then; record companies looked at the third album as the one where the investment paid off and if it didn’t, the band would be dropped.
Check this for a musically diverse good day out. I was at Reading Rock 1983 when Marillion played with, amongst others, Black Sabbath, Suzi Quatro and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
A steady stream of top 30 singles had kept Marillion floating comfortably on EMI’s bank balance but it was now time to come up with the record that would take them into the major league. Fish had by now become addicted to the Rock and Roll lifestyle and after finishing the tour to promote Fugazi, came home to an empty house where he started to find himself very alone and not willing to face the realities and responsibilities of the real world. Fish picks up the story from the liner notes written on the re-mastered CD released in 1996 (abridged notes):
"An envelope arrived one day. Inside there was a short letter from an old girlfriend with the recommendation to digest the accompanying contents - a tab of very strong acid. Not having indulged for a while I swallowed a cautious half, and after a few hours and with a pleasant euphoria, I took the other half. I started to doodle and scribble in my lyric book on the off chance of catching something from the trip. It was sometime during the night that I was visited. I felt a child standing behind me on the stairs. I knew he was dressed as a soldier and vanished as soon as he entered the corner or my eye. Perhaps it was my muse; perhaps it was the drug. It was enough to propel me into reaming off a large scrawl of prose. Contained within were the diamonds and structure on which would hang up the entire concept of Misplaced Childhood."
Fish’s trip lasted ten hours and when the band met up for rehearsals to write the next album, the music the band had written and Fish’s ideas for songs naturally formed themselves into a concept album. Guitarist Steve Rothery in the meantime had had a lucky accident. Again, from the 1996 re-issue liner notes he writes:
"My wife to be, Jo, asked me to explain how I came up with my musical ideas. Picking up a nearby guitar I started improvising what later became the 'Kayleigh' riff whilst explaining that I tried to combine melody and rhythm."
Once the demos were recorded, they gave the tapes to EMI who looked at the band aghast when they told them it was a concept album because at that time, early 1985, the charts were filled with Wham!, Madonna, Howard Jones and Frankie Goes To Hollywood; Rock music, let alone Progressive Rock music, didn’t stand a chance. The band insisted this was the way to go though and set off in March for Hansa Studios in Berlin where Bowie had recorded Heroes along with producer Chris Kimsey to record the album. The result was a stunning blend of Progressive Rock, Rock and commercial songs linked with stanzas; the first side being based around Fish’s ex-girlfriend, Kay Lee and his inability to form another relationship because of her whilst side 2 was about drugs, alcoholism and the darker side of his life. Taken as a whole the album flowed as one piece of music but several songs lent themselves to be singles in their own right, just as Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2 had been for Floyd and EMI decided to release an edited version of Kayleigh. Thirty seconds were cut from the guitar solo and Kimsey added some effects to make it sound better on smaller speakers. I was released on 7th May before the album was finished. Everybody was quietly optimistic but no one was really prepared for what happened next. Kayleigh entered at No. 15 – their highest position to date in the singles charts and peaked at No. 2, only being held off the No.1 spot by the charity record, You’ll Never Walk Alone by The Crowd in aid of the victims of the Bradford Stadium fire disaster.
Kayleigh 7” single sleeve. I bought it as well as the 12” pic disc.
By June, Kayleigh was the most played record on British radio and was already climbing the charts in Holland, France and Germany. A promotional video was filmed while they were still in Hansa studios doing the final mix of the album showing the band playing in the studio and Fish meandering through the drab grey streets of Berlin, interspersed with an occasional glimpse of ‘Kayleigh’ and a young boy in a soldier’s jacket. In reality, the young boy was Robert Mead, the son of a local publican whose pub sleeve designer Mark Wilkinson used to frequent and decided to use for the artwork of both the single and album and Kayleigh was Tamara Nowy, the daughter of the owner of Hansa Studios who worked in the bar attached to it. Fish eventually married her.
The commercial success of Kayleigh led to a hugely successful album that hit No. 1 on 29th June 1985 and was top 10 in many other European markets; it even cracked the US Billboard chart peaking at No. 47. Misplaced Childhood brought Progressive Rock up to date and made it more accessible to average record buyer who preferred singles. In the UK, many other bands existing Prog bands such as Twelfth Night, IQ and Pallas started to draw greater audiences and new bands and sub-genres (Prog Metal, Nu Prog, etc) started to appear. After a five-year lull, Prog Rock was back.
What does all this mean to me? Well, it was Sunday 23rd June, 1985. Denise from Girlschool invites me over to her place for dinner. Her boyfriend, Tim, is cooking a curry. I ate too much and my trousers were too tight and when I got back home, I was in agony with stomach cramps. I lay in a foetal position on my bed, a tape loop of Misplaced Childhood playing all night and at 9am, I managed to get to the doctor conveniently located across the road from where I lived. He told me to go straight to Charing Cross Hospital and when I arrived there, I was hurried onto a gurney, a doctor telling me an operating theatre was being prepared; suspected ruptured appendix and if it bursts before they could get to it, I could die. Tests were done, thankfully not a burst appendix but it was pancreatitis, no doubt being brought on by too much spicey food and alcohol. Utter rest and controlled diet for a week was the treatment and I was placed in a room on my own. Two intravenous drips were in my arm, just a radio and a nurse checking my condition every two hours for company.
I was sedated so I drifted in and out of sleep but it seemed whenever I woke up, Kayleigh was being played on the radio. I never tired of it and after five days I was released from the hospital.
The day I was let out of the hospital, I went to see Motorhead’s 10th Anniversary gig.
A few years later, I was at the Townhouse Studios in London. It was a Saturday morning and I was in the lounge watching TV. The football show was on and I was interrupted by a Scottish voice bellowing ‘Take that rag off!’ I looked up, Fish was pointing at me and had an angry look on his face. I looked down to see I was wearing a Marillion T-shirt. ‘Just kidding’ he said and broke into a broad grin. We watched the football together after which he invited me into the studio to listen to a track from his new album - his first solo album. It was superb and I told him so. As I was leaving, I mentioned to him that I knew he hated Marillion now but that Kayleigh got me through a rough time in hospital and I was thankful for him writing it. ‘Oh I don’t hate Marillion’ he said, ‘just the people in the band.’ and cracked another of those wonderful grins.
I can’t listen to Kayleigh now without a smile and barrel of memories but the real legacy of this song is the name itself. Before Fish amalgamated Kay and Lee into Kayleigh, the name did not exist in that format. Just as J.J. Barrie invented the name Wendy for his book Peter Pan first published in 1904, so Fish created that spelling which has since gone on to be the 30th most popular name for a girl in Britain.
Happy days. Tim and Denise in their back garden. Tim died tragically after he fell off a P.A. stack during rehearsals for a Take That tour. A terrible loss to everyone who knew him but especially to Denise. Such a lovely man.