Love At First Sight - My First Marillion Gig
This was written on 7th November 2019*.
Thirty years ago today, I saw Marillion live for the first time. They had completely bypassed me at school, though I quite liked Kayleigh which was on my cassette of Now That’s What I Call Music 5. I had pigeonholed them in a sort of sub-metal ROCK nonsense category (I can hear my friends saying I should have left them there as I type this). And I was into indie - New Order, The Smiths, Depeche Mode - and Futurist/New Romantic bands - Duran, David Sylvian, Gary Numan. They didn’t fit.
But on a coach back from Bristol in late October 1989, my friend Dan lent me a cassette of The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra) to listen to, their double live album (this is all his fault). I was bored of my own tapes and wanted something new; Spotify was the stuff of Philip K Dick novels....Tomorrow’s World would have laughed at the idea in 1989....so borrowing a tape was the only option.
Plus Dan insisted I gave them a listen. I had discovered Peter Gabriel the year before - resolutely not indie or new romantic - so maybe they were worth a listen? They were Genesis-wannabes after all...
I slipped in the cassette and was blown away. The songs were far from heavy rock. Some were complicated and had insanely pretentious lyrics (Fugazi remains wonderful, but deeply bonkers), others were simple and touching. I was in love. But my new love was gone...Marillion had split with their singer, the gregarious, larger than life Scotsman, Fish, the year before. I had missed the boat.
At this time, I was working at NatWest Bank and living at home. I had cash on the hip and went out and bought everything I could find. I then discovered that Marillion were playing they first London gig at The Astoria with their new singer two weeks from when I had my Road To Damascus conversion (ok National Express coach to London, but you know what I mean).
This is where it gets weird. Several things collided in the way life does.
The branch of NatWest where I worked was Marillion’s bank. I had looked after their bank statements regularly since I joined the year before.
My branch also looked after the bank account of The Astoria, where they were playing. It was a wonderful music venue, sadly closed now and it was the site of many fantastic nights - I miss it terribly.
I had split with my first real love in July that year. Helen Bunclark had broken my little heart (and yes, it was too late for anyone to say they were sorry...). But I now had a huge crush on a girl called Serena. Marillion were her favourite band and it was her 18th birthday. She had a chap, but I was determined to pull her (terrible phrase, forgive me, but it’s what we said back then) despite this.
So, I hatched a plan.
Back then bank managers were actually quite important. Computers were primitive, no one had heard of relationship managers etc. Old school bank managers made the decisions and they owned the big relationships. And both Marillion and The Astoria were big accounts for our branch.
Our branch manager was a big, moustachioed man called John Sumner. He had a huge office and huger belly, fuelled by client lunches and corporate entertainment. Although he had done well in life, he was still a bit of a geezer - part of his persona he liked to play up. He smelt of wine and cigars. He was too senior to have much to do with me except a friendly nod as he walked through the back office.
I steeled myself and knocked on his door. He looked somewhat bewildered as I asked to speak to him but invited me in. I explained that Marillion were playing The Astoria and it was hideously sold out. I realised this was cheeky but I wanted to impress a girl and wondered if there was anything he could do to help.
He smiled, said you don’t get if you don’t ask and he would see what he could do, no promises. I tottered back to the till (I had reached the heady echelons of cashier status - no more typing numbers and then sliding cheques through machines the size of your sofa for me!).
The next day, John came in and tapped me on the shoulder. My fellow cashiers - all women and all from Essex it seemed - looked perplexed as to why John would be talking to me. I must be in trouble, something they would have delighted in.
John said it was all sorted, he had got four tickets and he “and the wife” were going too! He slipped two tickets to me later that week and told me to meet up there in the VIP area on the night.
I rang Serena, chuffed to bits that I had just trumped whatever gift her boyfriend had got her for her birthday and told her we were going to see her favourite band. She was pretty fucking chuffed too!
Roll on to the big night. I brought my change of clothes for after work - my uniform then was black jeans, a black flouncy shirt with little cream flowers, leather biker jacket, black suede pixie boots, a silk purple scarf tied around my wrist and fake silver bangles...it was a strong look. Not as strong as the amount of Kouros aftershave I was wearing. And my hair was bouffant as I was growing it - I thought I was so cool, I fear I looked ridiculous but if you can’t look ridiculous at 19, when can you??
I met Serena after work and we headed in to the gig. We had no idea where the VIP area was and asked a passing man who looked important (it turned out to be Marillion’s manager, John Arnison) who bless him walked us up to the right hand balcony of the venue and escorted us in to the velvet roped off area. There was John, suited and booted, cigar in hand, looking incongruous amongst the music industry people and heavy rock fans that filled the venue. He and his lovely wife waved us over and gave us champagne (I swear it was the first time I ever had tried it!). We necked our champers and John and Mrs Sumner chatted away to us both. Then finally John told us to head down to the floor to watch the band but whatever we did, insisted we headed back to the VIP area at the end. We had no idea why but duly agreed - he had been so kind, of course we would come back and see him after.
As we stood on the floor of the Astoria, now relegated back to pints of cider, I checked out the crowd; lots of leather, lots of amazing Marillion T-shirts with fantastic, dramatic images, and other bands I had never heard of...and two goths who seems very out of place. It was the 80s, there was a LOT of big hair.
There was a huge curtain across the front of the stage and the lights dimmed. The ambient keyboard sounds of The King Of Sunset Town, opening track of their new album, Seasons End, started...the bass kicking in as the sound built up. Then as the song burst into its big guitar opening, the curtain dropped to reveal the four original members of Marillion...it was incredibly exciting. Then the song slowed down to its jangly guitar bit, and Steve Hogarth, the new singer, walked out onto the stage, grinning like a man who couldn’t believe his luck. After years of failed pop star attempts and being a talented session musician (he played the piano on Heartland by The The), he was frontman playing a sold out gig in his home country.
He was the antithesis of Fish, 5 foot 7, mop of jet black hair, long black coat, black loose shirt, looking much more like the new romantic singers I loved. His voice was stunning, and he remains one of the best singers I have ever heard live. What followed was two hours of their whole new album plus 9 Fish-era songs. Hogarth was amazing - a man with (literally) big shoes to fill and a lot to prove and he won the audience over like a man possessed. He climbed monitors like a mountain goat, played keyboards with these strange gloves that played keys on anything he touched...it was like no gig I had been to before and I was smitten.
At the end of the show, we headed back up to the balcony as ordered, sweaty and full of excitement. John and his wife told us how much they had enjoyed the show (John confided he had watched them on TOTP and wasn’t impressed by Hogarth’s jumping around, so was relieved they were good live!) and then told us to follow them. We headed down to the Keith Moon bar, within the Astoria, and John revealed he had got us an invite to the back stage party!
He then took us in, introducing us to each member of the band - “this is one of my boys John and his little lady, Serena” - it was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me. Serena was blown away, and we got chatting to Steve Rothery, their incredible guitar player. He bought us a drink and gave Serena a guitar pick. If you were a fan, it was an amazing night. As a new fan, it was the equivalent of love at first sight.
Finally we headed home, knackered and elated. I got a kiss on the cheek, but no more. But more importantly I had fallen in love, and 30 years later I still love Marillion. I’ve seen them 25 times, around the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and the USA, and cannot wait to see them both nights at the Royal Albert Hall on 18th and 19th November 2019.
Over the years, I have dragged people to see them (threatening to fire people unless they came with me was a high point), I have been mocked for loving them and generally met with bafflement at my obsession. But I don’t care. And it was 30 years ago today when that began in earnest.
I will never forget that night and will never forget my boss’s kindness. And he was right, if you don’t ask, you don’t get so I resolutely keep asking! Sadly, my attempts to get Peter Gabriel to play my university fundraiser for Amnesty International two years later were less successful, but that’s another story....
*Thank you to eil.com for permission to use the image of the ticket stub - it's available to buy here: