Marillion Clutching at Straws

Still Drowning: Marillion’s Searing ‘Clutching at Straws’ Turns 35

Fish-era Marillion’s swan-song masterpiece Clutching at Straws is a hung-over eulogy to the twin nightmares of stardom and addiction.

Clutching at Straws
22 June 1987

“The tell-tale tocking of the last cigarette
Marking time in the packet as the whisky sweat lies
Like discarded armour on an unmade bed
And a familiar craving is crawling in his head…”

Marillion’s “Hotel Hobbies”

Why begin with these hard-bitten lines from the grueling “Hotel Hobbies”? Simple. Because no words posted here can possibly eclipse the desolate, otherworldly, yet somehow romanticized lyrics found on 1987’s Clutching at Straws: Fish-era Marillion‘s swan-song masterpiece, and popular music’s greatest hung-over eulogy to the twin nightmares of stardom and addiction.

For many late ’80s rock aficionados, Clutching at Straws became THE go-to record for those morning-after substance blues. Musical hair of the dog; vinyl penance for sins of the night before; a tabloid dipsomaniac’s blistering touchstone of sacrifice and self-immolation, pissing all over the hydrant and mocking all who came after. Now, three decades later – battered by life’s infinite failures and frustrations – the record still stands alone because no other document could possibly take its place.

One need not be a Marillion fan. But anyone carrying so much as a shred of self-medicated guilt from days gone by should consider themselves a Clutching at Straws fan by royal decree.

Lead singer and lyricist Fish had always epitomized the modern “street poet”, lamenting the pressures of love, growing up, and chasing success (or perhaps even finding it) on 1983’s Script for a Jester’s Tear, 1984’s Fugazi, and 1985’s Misplaced Childhood. Childhood and its number-two British single “Kayleigh” were multi-platinum smashes all across Europe, producing sold-out arenas, high-priced temptation, and countless baby girls named Kayleigh. So Marillion hit the road for a backbreaking 18 months straight, with record label EMI breathing down their necks demanding another hit sequel. The strain understandably became too much, and Marillion imploded in a haze of acrimony and substance use (or abuse, depending on who you ask). Marillion had reached their creative pinnacle, but getting there destroyed them. And the world reaped Clutching at Straws in return.

As a wise person once said, great artists suffer so the rest of us don’t have to.

“I was getting pissed off with everything by that point,” says Fish in the liner notes to 2018’s Hi-Res box set, speaking of the Childhood world tour. “I was totally against the way the band’s affairs were being managed, being kept out on the road to make money for other people, rather than taking time to regroup and write new material.” Guitarist Steve Rothery concurs: “The truth is, Clutching was not a very enjoyable album to make.”

Funny he should say that. Because while Fish’s elegiac lyrics were unfailingly brilliant, Marillion’s music – at least to this reviewer’s ear – always fell short on their previous records. Unimaginative, self-indulgent, bordering on dull. As resolute critical non-favorites, early Marillion also labored under unfavorable comparisons with the Who, and especially pop-era Genesis. But Clutching at Straws’ riffs and progressions thrillingly measure up to the alcoholic task at hand: Mark Kelly’s accusatory keyboards; Rothery’s fierce, wailing, get-me-the-fuck-outta-here licks; Ian Mosley’s epic, take-no-prisoners drumming. Behind such raw melodic power, the stark and irrefutable beauty of tracks like “Torch Song” tosses any prior deficiencies overboard.

But those lyrics! On Clutching at Straws, language meets music with a ferocity Marillion never attained before or since. Reading Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novels, one encounters immortal phrases like ‘swans-down’. No other description could possibly suit an ostracized cri de coeur like the aforementioned “Torch Song”:

“I read some Kerouac and it put me on the tracks to burn a little brighter now
Something about Roman candles fizzing out, shine a little light on me now
Found a strange fascination with a liquid fixation, alcohol can thrill me now
It’s getting late in the game to show any pride or shame
Just burn a little brighter now…”

Marillion’s “Torch Song”

Then there’s “Warm Wet Circles”, which evolved from watching run-of-the-mill tavern drunks brag about everything while accomplishing nothing:

“On promenades where drunks propose to lonely arcade mannequins
Where ceremonies pause at the jeweler’s shop display
Feigning casual silence in strained romantic interludes
Till they commit themselves to the muted journey home…”

“Warm Wet Circles”

It might be heretical to say so. But taken as a whole – and considering the harrowing subject matter – Fish’s exquisite libretto on Clutching at Straws may rival any English words ever put to music. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Mr. Dylan.) Maintaining such excellence over the course of 52 minutes? Magical.

Besides, Marillion had better sound good. Speaking frankly, this was not a telegenic band – an observation which, during the mid-’80s heyday of MTV, sounds almost quaint in retrospect. A side-by-side comparison with gorgeous video stalwarts like Bon Jovi or Duran Duran may induce laughter. Fish’s ‘shaggy jester’ act was hardly an act, while contemporary publicity stills reveal a hoary group of dedicated musicians instead of made-up models with guitars. One is reminded of Oscar- and Grammy winner Christopher Cross’ amusing lament that video throttled his music career. In any case, MTV pretty-boy allergens might also explain Marillion’s failure to gain any traction on US charts, with “Kayleigh” fizzling out at 74 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It’s, therefore, quite fitting that the 1986 American leg of the Misplaced Childhood tour proved to be an arduous, depressing, hole-in-the-wall mess – part and parcel of the powder keg that blew 1980s Marillion apart. As legend has it, the band found themselves in a Milwaukee rathole during a rainstorm, either stuck opening for bigger North American acts like Rush or playing small pubs light-years removed from the European arenas they became accustomed to after “Kayleigh” broke it big. The pressure, the drugs, the utter exhaustion of the road. Here were born ageless barstool classics like “Sugar Mice”:

“I heard Sinatra calling me down through the floorboards
Will you pay a quarter for a partnership in rhyme
To the jukebox crying in the corner
While the waitress is counting out the time…”

“Sugar Mice”

Typical for the fraught Clutching at Straws studio sessions, Rothery recounts a producer’s irritating criticism of his guitar work to this point – after which he proceeded to nail the indelible “Sugar Mice” solo in a single perfect take. Quite the proud moment.

In addition to aching loveliness, some parts of Clutching at Straws really rock too. “Incommunicado” shoves Kelly’s keyboards and Rothery’s guitar up front in a delirious swirl of euphoria that Genesis or ELP could only wish for, as a livid and audibly resentful Fish spits lines like “Don’t wanna be a tin-can tied to the bumper of a wedding limousine!” The song vents some serious catharsis much more so than certain ’80s rock hits one could mention.

And what of the remastered/re-released versions over the years, of which your humble reviewer owns all three? The original EMI Clutching at Straws CD boasted some of the fullest, most crystalline production imaginable, setting a very high bar. (Such breathtaking quality on first-edition digital releases is rare as a hunter’s moon; Happy the Man’s early albums also come to mind.) While the 2018 Parlophone Hi-Res set certainly has its advantages – including 5.1 surround sound remixes and a near-complete Edinburgh concert from December 1987 – it regrettably suffers compared to deluxe editions by other artists.

Best example? Bill Nelson undeniably set the standard with his five 1970s Be-Bop Deluxe box-set reissues, featuring full 24/96 resolution (Clutching at Straws is 24/48) and sonic quality leagues ahead of earlier versions. If a record label charges a fortune for music we already own, they better do it right: The immersive surround mixes on Nelson’s sets are a revelation, like hearing beloved half-century-old anthems crawl from under the covers for the first time. Sad to say, aside from a new solo on “Going Under”, there isn’t much lurking inside Clutching at Straws’ 5.1 mix that you won’t find on the exceptional earlier releases.

Just a couple more nit-picky complaints about this personal ’80s favorite, for completeness’ sake. The sinister bridge from “Torch Song” sounds lifted straight from Styx’s 1977 “Castle Walls”, as in note-for-note; and the overall structure of both “Sugar Mice” and Rothery’s electric solo owes a major debt to David Gilmour’s gut-wrenching work on 1979’s “Mother”. Although to be fair, what subsequent guitar solo doesn’t?

Fish departed after the Clutching at Straws tour in 1988, leading to years of acrimony and bad blood. Yet judging by 2018’s joint interview, the boys have (mostly) let bygones be bygones. Hard to believe, but such things do indeed happen. This writer once spent an entire weekend with the drummer for an A-list band; despite years of interminable lawsuits, he still remained in weekly contact with their mega-famous lead singer. Blood-money quote? “We’ve been mates since five years old. That didn’t change.”

So, incredibly, 35 years have passed – time enough for life, family, and career. Some of us may not sin the way we used to but Clutching at Straws forever haunts the periphery, reminding us that we once did. Its angry, besotted complexity, communicated via words and music, somehow survives to commemorate four decades of self-corruption and unholy regret, even if its architects didn’t.

Like any recovered addict or depressive will tell you, 95% of our problems reside in the mirror – as do their solutions. So in closing, one last verse from “Sugar Mice”, where Fish reluctantly lays the responsibility where it belongs: “So if you want my address, it’s number one at the end of the bar / Where I sit with the broken angels, clutching at straws and nursing our scars / Blame it on me….”

Sad to say, but mid-’80s Marillion felt like they were just discovering what they were capable of. Who knows what might have come next?