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Best Marillion Songs: 10 Neo-Prog Classics From The 80s
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List & Guides

Best Marillion Songs: 10 Neo-Prog Classics From The 80s

Surfing a wave of 80s prog, the best Marillion songs flooded FM radio in a torrent of quixotic poetry and bombastic pop-rock.

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Hailing from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, progressive-rock group Marillion – named after JRR. Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion – fused Genesis-inspired grandiosity with a synth-era toy box that flirted with the playfulness of new wave pop. Emerging in the early 80s with fantastical lyrics that gave us a deep dive into the psyche of Scottish songwriter Fish, the best Marillion songs were positively swimming with guitarist Steve Rothery’s bodacious riffs and keyboardist Mark Kelly’s rapturous synth hooks.

From the spirited, punk-indebted shriek of their debut single, Market Square Heroes, to the impassioned romantic pleas of their UK Top 5 hit Kayleigh, Marillion continued the eccentric quest Peter Gabriel mounted with the 70s incarnation of Genesis, defying the odds by recasting progressive rock in their own image. Though the band would, in 1989, find a new frontman in the shape of Steve Hogarth, the group’s Fish-fronted era earned them their reputation as masters of neo-prog.

Listen to the best of Marillion here, and check out our best Marillion songs, below.

10: Punch And Judy (from ‘Fugazi’, 1984)

Released in January 1984 as the lead single to Marillion’s sophomore album, Fugazi, Punch And Judy – a three-and-a-half-minute narrative about domestic violence – was originally demoed at a time when Marillion were struggling to find a new drummer to fill their line-up following the departure of Mick Pointer. Though they finally settled on the incomparable Ian Mosley, the song gives a writing credit to Toyah Willcox drummer Jonathan Mover, who was originally part of its creation. Chock-full of slice-of-life wordplay, Punch And Judy reached No.24 in the UK.

9: Sugar Mice (from ‘Clutching At Straws’, 1987)

While staying at a Holiday Inn during a US tour, Marillion songwriter Fish hung up the phone after an argument with his first wife, Tamara Nowy. Reflecting on the exchange as he wrote the words (“I was flicking through the channels on the TV/On a Sunday in Milwaukee in the rain”), it became clear that Sugar Mice would be a painfully heart-on-sleeve pop ballad unlike anything Marillion had ever attempted before. Featuring Fish “taking a rain check” at the bar to drown his sorrows, the song boasted one of Steve Rothery’s finest guitar solos and was one of the standout moments on the band’s fourth album Clutching At Straws. Peaking at No.22 in the UK, it may not have reached the heights of 1985’s Kayleigh, but it taps into the same vein of pathos that Fish often excelled at expressing.

8: Heart Of Lothian (from ‘Misplaced Childhood’, 1985)

A downtrodden tribute to the mosaic footpaths of the city of Edinburgh (“And anarchy smiles on the Royal Mile”), Heart Of Lothian was an ambitious prog-rock foray into varied time signatures and Fish’s acute social observations. In the shadow of high-rises Fish poetically describes as “stalagmites of culture shock”, the song is a sprawling and vivid depiction of the singer’s younger days in his native Scotland, and it reached No.29 in the UK after being released as the third single from Marillion’s 1985 album, Misplaced Childhood. Easily ranking among the best Marillion songs, Heart Of Lothian coaxed out of Steve Rothery a sky-scraping guitar solo that expertly evokes nostalgia and urban hopelessness in equal measure.

7: Garden Party (from ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’, 1983)

Throwing his hat into the ring of the class war, Fish wrote the discontented Garden Party following a gig in Cambridge where his use of face paint left the upper-class students aghast. “I always had a chip on my shoulder about blue bloods, the whole class thing,” the songwriter later said. Mark Kelly’s pitch-perfect synth solo and Steve Rothery’s caustic guitar riffs helped create this rock epic par excellence, which went to No.16 in the UK, becoming the highest-charting single from Marillion’s debut album, Script From A Jester’s Tear. Lampooning the many pursuits of Oxbridge toffs (“I’m punting, I’m beagling/I’m wining, reclining/I’m rucking, I’m fucking”), Garden Party is a delightfully sarcastic takedown of upper-class intellectuals, and it punctures the pretentiousness of the educated elite like a fine needle in a blue-blooded balloon.

6: Assassing (from ‘Fugazi’, 1984)

Worldly and exotic, Assassing winds itself around Steve Rothery’s Middle Eastern-influenced guitar lines, mixing sitar drone with a funk-inspired groove. After Van Der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hamill gave Fish a tape of Arabic drumming, the Marillion singer wrote lyrics to “unsheath the blade within the voice”, evoking the violence of Islamist extremists from ancient times while addressing criticisms he faced after sacking previous bandmates (“I am the assassin, providing your nemesis/On the sacrificial altar to success, my friend”). As one of the best Marillion songs, Assassing peaked at No.22 in the UK and remains a miasmic demonstration of the band’s experimental impulses as well as their neo-progessive-rock sensibility.

5: He Knows You Know (from ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’, 1983)

It was with their second single, He Knows You Know, that Marillion scored their first UK Top 40 hit, reaching No.35 in February 1983. Written in the wake of an LSD comedown when Fish worked at a Jobcentre in Aylesbury, its pitch-black lyrics see the singer vent his spleen in scathingly paranoid fashion (“You’ve got venom in your stomach/You’ve got poison in your head”). Bristling with all the angst of punk rock and featuring haunting stabs of synths and Fish’s idiosyncratic yelping, it’s a song that proves Marillion were a lot gutsier than their prog contemporaries. Released as the first single from Script For A Jester’s Tear, He Knows You Know also made inroads in the US by peaking at No.21 on Billboard’s rock chart.

4: Incommunicado (from ‘Clutching At Straws’, 1987)

The lead single from 1987’s Clutching At Straws, Incommunicado is undoubtedly one of the best Marillion songs, and arguably the most straightforward rocker they set to tape. “I always loved The Who, and I wanted to do more rocky stuff,” Fish later said. Featuring a memorable Mark Kelly keyboard hook that the singer jokingly described as “the widdly-widdly synth stuff”, the song was a gleefully tongue-in-cheek celebration of embracing all the perks of fame (“I want to do adverts for American Express cards/Talk shows on prime-time TV/A villa in France”). The third Marillion single to break the UK Top 10, Incommunicado peaked at No.6 and successfully crammed the band’s innate prog virtuosity into an unashamedly radio-friendly tour de force.

3: Lavender (from ‘Misplaced Childhood’, 1985)

From its opening hypnotic and sorrowful piano notes, Lavender grows into an epic ballad that is perhaps the only Top 5 British rock song to reference a 19th-century nursery rhyme. Perfectly evoking the dream-like segment of the conceptual story that underpins Misplaced Childhood, Lavender is a majestically wistful singalong that lacks the prog-inspired ostentatiousness of Marillion’s early work, but is beguiling nonetheless. Reportedly influenced lyrically by Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, you can practically smell the springtime reverie on Lavender, which overpowers the senses as only the best Marillion songs can.

2: Marker Square Heroes (single A-side, 1982)

As much as punk fans might be loathe to admit it, Marillion’s debut single, Market Square Heroes, shared the same spirit as Sex Pistols’ rancorous diatribes. “There was a kind of punk thing, a real spit and venom, about it,” Fish later said of the song. “It might have been all clever-clever music-wise, but the delivery had a lot more attack.” Telling the story of Brick, a left-wing rabble-rouser trying to start a revolution in a local pub, Market Square Heroes appears to satirise the political idealism behind the legion of Johnny Rotten acolytes (“I am your Antichrist/Show me allegiance/Are you following me?”). The first Marillion release to feature artwork by illustrator Mark Wilkson – who would later go on to create many of the best Marillion album covers – the single deserves its place among the best Marillion songs for hitting the bullseye on the group’s auspicious rise to neo-prog notoriety.

1: Kayleigh (from ‘Misplaced Childhood’, 1985)

Peaking at No.2 in the UK and No.74 in the US, Kayleigh is the stuff of 80s rock legend. Featuring Steve Rothery’s iconic chiming opening guitar riff and some of Fish’s most personal lyrics to date, the song is a masterful prog ballad that catapulted Marillion to prominence following a star-making appearance on the BBC TV chat show Wogan. After their performance, Malcolm Hill, former Head Of Promotions at EMI, tapped Fish on the shoulder and told him, “That little smile you did at the end broke every mother’s heart in Great Britain.” Written about Fish’s ex-girlfriend Kay – her middle name was Lee – the song is an anthemic paean to sorrow and deep-seated regret that turned Marillion into household names. “Releasing a song like Kayleigh sent our career into hyperdrive,” Fish later told Classic Rock magazine, “like that moment in Star Trek when the screen goes white.” Maudlin and bittersweet, Kayleigh marked the peak of the band’s 80s heyday and deservedly tops our list of the best Marillion songs.

Looking for more? Check out our run-down of the best 80s songs.

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