Last week I learned, via a tweet from Sean Palmerston, that Marillion’s debut single came out 30 years ago—October 25, to be precise. Wow. 1982 doesn’t feel like a long time ago. I think of the early '80s as either prog or metal years, as I alternated between discovering new bands in each genre. 1981 was the year I really got into Yes and ELP. 1982 was definitely a metal year, what with Number of the Beast coming out. 1983 was another prog year, as I puzzled over Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear. The next year I took a chance on a nasty piece of work entitled Kill 'Em All and, once I’d finished laughing at the lyrics, became a convert to the new metal scene.
I realize now that Marillion were the key band during these years of discovery. Tracking down information on the group led me to KERRANG! magazine, which in turn got me into Mercyful Fate, Metallica, Pallas, Celtic Frost, IQ, Slayer, Voivod, and so on… The magazine might have gone downhill later on, but in the early '80s, it was life-altering stuff, without question. Marillion, and reading about Marillion (by KERRANG! staffers like Chris Welch and Mick Wall) turned me into the music-fan-with-blog you see before you now.
Marillion’s first single was the prologue to four of my all-time favourite albums, so I thought I’d commemorate and appreciate “Market Square Heroes” on its 30th anniversary. Marillion in 1982 were firmly entrenched in Britain’s metal press, gracing the covers of the NWOBHM-obsessed SOUNDS and KERRANG! Marillion may have brazenly evoked Genesis, Camel and Floyd, but their hard-earned grassroots following drew from the same denim-clad hordes who’d helped launch labelmates Iron Maiden towards global domination.
Still, Marillion were odd ducks when they signed with EMI and set to work on “Market Square Heroes.” Having a Tolkien-derived band name and a frontman with a fondness for greasepaint probably didn’t endear them to the music scene at large. Critics with fresh memories of prog’s late-'70s crash and burn (Love Beach, anyone?) rolled their eyes at the notion of a progressive revival. However, “Market Square Heroes” itself was a concise, punchy statement that revealed a band with a firm grip on reality and singer/lyricist Fish as the people’s poet, “Keeping the beat of the street pulse” rather than constructing castles in the clouds.
Mark Wilkinson’s image of the sinister jester peeking from behind a mask was the first of many covers featuring this character. Like Iron Maiden’s Eddie, he was depicted in various scenarios across the band’s releases and merchandise, and was a strong presence until 1985 Misplaced Childhood album, where you can see him on the back cover jumping out of a window.
With a crowd-pleasing Jethro Tull-ish spring in its step, "Market Square Heroes" made an effective stand-alone single. It would not have fit well with the more epic material on Script for a Jester’s Tear, released the next year. The verses have a jaunty feel propelled by Mark Kelly’s rollicking keyboard lick, which suits the bitter humour in Fish’s lyrics. Lines like “I got a golden handshake that nearly broke my arm” frame this working-man’s lament for Thatcher’s post-industrial Britain. Later, the mood turns menacing as it emerges that the song’s hero may have a messiah complex: “I am your antichrist, show me allegiance.” Idle hands will soon be making the devil’s work, it seems. Then with a rabble-rousing “We march!” the song returns to its opening theme and a chorus that would spawn encore singalongs for years to come.
The B-side (or second A-side on the 12-inch EP) “Three Boats Down from the Candy” is a song I’ve always regarded as a quintessential early Marillion track, a creepy charmer about sordid seaside trysts and cruel rejection. The “wipe the tears from your eyes/wipe the sweat from your thighs” couplet is both classic and cringeworthy. The song has a linear flow with no real chorus, opening with a tumbling, macabre fanfare before falling into a hush that really does conjure the opening lyrical image of “vacant deckchairs on a floodlit beach.” Fish finds his classic vocal style here, spooling out his words against a delicate Steve Rothery backdrop—an early example of the type of narrative, “in character” singing he would later use on songs like “Incubus” and “White Russian.”
“Grendel,” available on the Market Square Heroes 12-inch B-side, was one of Marillion’s early signature songs, their own “Supper’s Ready”-style epic. Compared to the Genesis masterpiece, it’s rather rudimentary, but it has a impoverished charm of its own. People like to point at the climactic “Let the blood flow” section, which echoes “Apocalypse in 9/8” (except Marillion do it in 4/4!) as evidence that Marillion were a bit too blatant about their influences. That’s a fair comment about one part of the song. The rest of the song, aside from Fish’s strident vocals, sounds more like Camel to me—loose and jammy, with Steve Rothery saving the day with his emotive soloing, especially during the song’s denouement. Rothery is clearly the band’s musical leader at this point, although with Mark Kelly (keyboards) and Pete Trewavas (bass)—both still fairly new to the band—he’d have a formidable team to work with on the upcoming albums. It’s a good thing that Marillion took the opportunity to get this song out of their system and record it for posterity. It’s a nice bit of history. After opening their Reading 1983 set with a killer version of “Grendel” with John Martyr on drums, they dropped the green monster from their set.
“Market Square Heroes” started Marillion’s career somewhere between a bang and a whimper. The song charted at a respectable 60. However, the band were reportedly unhappy with their first major-label recording experience. Recruiting producer Dave Hitchcock, who'd worked on such classics as Foxtrot and The Snow Goose, kind of backfired. He reportedly was obsessed with recording “Grendel,” and hastily mustered a rather drab sound for “Market Square Heroes” itself. A 1983 rerecording released on the “Punch and Judy” single is a lot better. Founding member Mick Pointer, at the time a decidedly average drummer, would be fired within a year, and the band would go from strength to strength until Fish’s departure in 1988. Marillion have boxed clever with the music business ever since (anticipating Kickstarter by nearly a decade, for example) and maintain a rabid fanbase worldwide.The last bit of trivia I’d like to highlight is this: When the band finally reunited with Fish for a surprise outdoor performance in their old hometown of Aylesbury in 2007, the song they inevitably chose for the occasion was “Market Square Heroes.”