It’s been 30 years since the release of Marillion’s Clutching at Straws, the band’s fourth album and their final recording with the legendary frontman Fish. For many, this also makes it the last true Marillion album. Although the band may have continued, to both critical and commercial success with Steve Hogarth at the helm, they never truly recaptured the poetic grandeur and lyrical luxuriance of those days under Derek W. Dick aka Fish.
“I am a writer who can sing, rather than a singer who can write,” explains Fish, who will retire from the industry next year after a final album and tour. “I was also an arsehole and my ego was out of control at that time.”
“That time” was the sudden pop star status that the success of their third album, a number one album no less, had brought the band, which included Top of the Pops appearances for the hit singles, “Kayleigh” and “Lavender”. It was the excess of these experiences, along with the problems it brought to his own private life, that Fish channeled into Clutching at Straws.
We get a taste of life on the road with “Hotel Hobbies” and “Sugar Mice”, Fish’s ego unleashed in “Incommunicado”, and even a track that Fish describes as his resignation letter to the band in “That Time of the Night”. There is melancholy, there is melodrama and there is more than a touch of self-pity; perhaps even self-loathing in the half a dozen or so songs of the original release.
Clutching at Straws was an altogether different beast from the mercurial third album, with its haunting lyrics and sweeping melodies flowing seamlessly from one to the next. Clutching at Straws was a collection of distinct songs with a much darker, heavier theme, which exposed the problems within the band and foreshadowed their breakup the following year.
Nicknamed Fish because he apparently drank like one, it’s hard not to read autobiographically into the sad central character of “Torch”; propping up the bar, failing in his marriage and family life and insisting on “Just for the Record” that he’s going to put it down and turn his life around.
There are echoes of the poetry of the third album in tracks like “Sugar Mice” and the way the brilliantly observed “Warm Wet Circles” mourns the loss of the age of innocence, but even these tracks are bittersweet.
For all the bolshy bravado of “Slainte Mhath” and his dreaming big of “adverts for American Express cards, talk shows on prime time TV, a villa in France, my own cocktail bar”, the bitterness of hollow fame is laid bare for all to see. When the final track pronounces the band to be “terminal cases that keep talking medicine, pretending the end isn’t quite that near”, it’s clear that despite there being a four-second track listed as “Happy Ending”, there is nothing like that on the horizon for Marillion and Fish.
Unlike the previous album, we won’t be waking up to find that it was all just a bad dream. This time, the nightmare is all too real: the band of brothers split asunder by the arrival of fame and fortune.
It may have been Fish’s personal favorite of his four Marillion outings, and it may have been voted number 37 on the Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time, but in the end, they were always just clutching at straws.
A few months later, in a row over the way the band was being handled, Fish gave them an ultimatum to choose between their manager and him. They chose the manager. And the rest, sadly, is history.