- MARILLION Sugar Mice (EMI)
- Week Ending 8th August 1987
- 2 Weeks At #1
Although it wasn’t obvious from the sequence of records (and artists) topping my personal Singles chart during the summer of 1987, Yours Truly’s musical obsession of that period was the fourth studio album from Fish and friends, a.k.a. Marillion, Clutching At Straws.
In fact June 1987, the month of the album’s release, proved something of a watershed; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘s much-trumpeted arrival on Compact Disc had me prioritising it over the brand new Whitney Houston long-player, while thanks to a combination of Q Magazine and Radio 1’s Johnnie Walker I had also ventured into the catalogue of Randy Newman and his Lonely At The Top retrospective, as far as I’d ever ventured from the here and now, and the safety net of the UK Top 40/75/100.
Clutching At Straws emerged towards the end of the month, on the back of a UK #6 hit Incommunicado and some genuine expectations that it could build on the success of 1985’s Misplaced Childhood, and that album’s two big singles Kayleigh and Lavender Blue.
Sadly, it didn’t quite pan out as hoped. Incommunicado took people by surprise (well, me anyway) when it almost debuted in the Top 5, yet it was more a sign of their fanbase power – heightened by 18 months’ silence since their last release – and the weaker state of the singles market itself. The record went into immediate decline, while Clutching At Straws was denied top spot by Whitney Houston’s aforementioned latest, in the middle of its 6-week opening stretch at the summit.
Marillion had been on a continually upward curve in terms of performance on my Top 40 ever since January 1984’s Punch & Judy became their first eligible release and climbed as high as #11. Assassing took them into the Top 10 by peaking at #7 (and I bought the 7″ single in one of my typically random purchase choices of the time). Then came those consecutive UK Top 5 smashes from Misplaced Childhood, although I wasn’t as enamoured with Kayleigh as the British public, preferring Lavender Blue which went straight in at #9 before reaching #4, their highest yet!
That was equalled by Heart Of Lothian as 1985 drew to a close, but I still didn’t think of myself as a Marillion fan as such. Misplaced Childhood struggled to gain my absolute attention amongst such strong competition that year (Tears For Fears, OMD, Propaganda, New Order, Madness, ABC etc), and I didn’t buy a copy of any kind until the 1990s. I hadn’t even been that taken with Incommunicado at first; it eventually made it as far as #4 (that position again!) although I am still unsure exactly how or why. It’s an enjoyable and lyrically amusing romp, but a rather lumpen rock workout with progtastic keyboard wig outs.
Come the evening of June 22nd, I had made up my mind that I would take advantage of a rare offer to go up to Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus late at night (hey, rock and roll!) and buy Clutching At Straws on CD. My first CD purchase from Tower Records, and one of the first albums that I was brave (foolhardy?) enough to risk £10.99 on the Compact Disc version straight away without knowing what the whole album might be like.
I did already know one of the album tracks, Sugar Mice; a ballad in the mould of Lavender Blue that some observers (such as DJ Paul Gambaccini) thought would repeat its success on the chart. When issued as the album’s second single, it debuted at a modest #33 (no time to panic), then rose to #22 (still hope!), but progressed no further (damn it!).
A slow-burner that reaches its sublime crescendo with the guitar solo towards the end, Sugar Mice was perhaps just too subtle to cross over in the same way as a Kayleigh or Lavender Blue. Such was my intoxication with the album, pretty much any song off Clutching At Straws would have had a strong chance of emulating its #1 status on my own Top 40. Warm Wet Circles, the third and final 45 of the campaign later that autumn and another #22 smash, very nearly did. That Time Of The Night (the final section of Clutching..‘s opening song suite), White Russian (Side One’s evocative finale), and especially Slainte Mhath could also have made excellent singles.
For so long on the wrong end of music critics’ jibes and disdain, the tide had turned in their favour come Clutching At Straws….in their end-of-year list of 1987’s 50 Essential Albms, Q Magazine even upgraded their earlier verdict of the album and concluded that “their next album will be crucial”. And, in ways that few had forseen, so it proved.
The next Marillion album would be without Fish, relations between the singer/lyricist and the rest of the band succumbing to the fatal rock’n’roll cocktail of musical differences, competing egos, too much pressure from management with their own agenda, and not enough time off to think clearly about the best way forward.
In the liner notes to a 1998 reissue of Clutching At Straws, Fish confesses that with better advice, he should have gone off and got a solo record out of his system, rather than attempt to bring the more direct material he’d been working on in 1988 to the band as a potential Marillion album.
You can hear it in many of Clutching..‘s lyrics, that his own demons and his growing disenchantment with the state of the world was in danger of overpowering the magical dynamic that Marillion’s music possessed. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the type of direction Fish was heading towards, especially with the likes of Internal Exile and State Of Mind (subsequent solo singles in the early 1990s) among those ideas he brought to the band during those fateful 1988 meetings.
1987 saw the demise and dissolution of one great, much-missed musical partnership; that of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, as The Smiths abruptly closed for business. Yet the end of the Fish-era Marillion was every bit as unexpected; the continuation of the band with a new frontman – and their evolution into something quite sublime in their own right – proving the main difference, and one which ultimately softened the blow for me.
[…] was a key album for me in the summer of 1987, as I allude to in this very long piece about its second single, Sugar Mice. I’d thought about giving Clutching At Straws its own “featured” slot, but a […]
Nice blog post! Just one thing that bugs me; you keep referring to the 2nd single from Misplaced Childhood as “Lavender Blue”. In fact, only one alternative mix was called such; generally, the song’s proper title is simply “Lavender”.
Thanks Jules! Oops, you are right. Dilly me…