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‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’: Marillion’s Debut Album Had The Last Laugh
In Depth

‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’: Marillion’s Debut Album Had The Last Laugh

A unique blend of prog rock and new-wave pop, ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ established Marillion as neo-prog pioneers.


When Marillion released their debut album, Script For A Jester’s Tear, in 1983, the progressive-rock scene was changed forever. Signalling a shift away from the more abstract, fantasy-based lyrical leanings of Yes toward the edginess and political consciousness of punk rock, Marillion opened themselves up to the studio innovations of the new-wave movement, combining synth-laden arrangements with intricate musicianship and vivid storytelling.

Fearlessly experimental and undeniably refreshing, Script For A Jester’s Tear demonstrated the group’s ability to craft melodic tunes while still leaving room for their signature sonic experimentation, and it put Marillion at the forefront of a neo-prog revival at a time when the genre seemed to be on its last legs. Here is the story of how Marillion’s Script for A Jester’s Tear had the last laugh and brought prog rock back from the brink.

Listen to ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ here.

The backstory: “I had to learn very, very fast”

Joining the band after it was founded in the late 70s in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Marillion’s lead singer Fish – a nickname he adopted after his landlord criticised how long he would spend in the bath – quit his job in the Forestry Commission and decided to pursue his dreams of becoming a rock star. “I had to learn very, very fast,” he told Prog magazine. “I had a little paperback book that I bought. It was how to become a pop star.”

The band’s name, Marillion, was inspired by JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a collection of myths and legends set in Middle-earth which captured the mysterious, evocative quality that suited the band’s aesthetic. With a line-up of Steve Rothery (guitar), Mark Kelly (keyboards), Pete Trewavas (bass) and Mick Pointer (drums), the group drew from diverse influences such as Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, writing songs at a time when prog rock was considered by many critics to be dead in the wake of punk’s furious charge.

Playing in small clubs and building a fanbase, what truly set Marillion apart from the offset was Fish’s aggressive and venomous lyrics, which in some ways evoked the confrontational spirit of Sex Pistols, even though his voice ranged from a tender Peter Gabriel-esque croon to a soaring wail. After signing with EMI and releasing their first single, Market Square Heroes, in 1981, Marillion received airplay on BBC Radio 1 and drew significant attention from the music press, paving the way for the recording of their debut album, Script For A Jester’s Tear.

The recording: “The studios are built on top of an old plague pit where hundreds of bodies are supposedly buried”

Recorded with Thin Lizzy and Toyah producer Nick Tauber in London’s Marquee studio, Script For A Jester’s Tear mixed Marillion’s prog-based propensity for playful time-signature shifts and sparkling synths with cryptic lyrics that explored everything from class warfare to drug use. With the mournfulness of keyboardist Mark Kelly’s rubato piano inviting Fish to embody the sorrow of a Shakespearean fool (“So here I am once more/In the playground of broken hearts”), there’s a touch of Elizabethan broadside balladry to the album’s opening title track before guitarist Steve Rothery launches into a broiling guitar solo.

With poetic fervour, Fish evoked the medieval metaphor of jesters playing to an unamused king, while the musical majesty of Steve Rothery’s guitar work picked up the baton from the fantastical digressions of the best Yes songs and dragged the prog scene into the world of 80s pop-rock. Released as Script For A Jester’s Tear’s debut single in January 1983, He Knows You Know saw Fish express the drug-addled inebriety of a post-binge comedown from behind an office desk as if confessing his sins to a tubthumping priest (“Fast feed, crystal fever, swarming through a fractured mind”). Peaking at No.35 in the UK, the song melded the emerging pop sensibilities of Genesis with Fish’s penchant for dark and twisted subject matter.

While recording the show-stopping eight-minute album closer, Forgotten Sons – a searing critique of UK military involvement in the Troubles in Northern Ireland – Fish drew upon the dismay he felt when jobseekers at the employment office where he worked told him they were joining the British Army. Taking listeners “from the dole queue to the regiment”, Forgotten Sons is a cautionary tale of young lads being duped into fighting a thankless cause (“On the news a nation mourns you, unknown soldier count the cost/For a second you’ll be famous but labelled ‘posthumous’”).

It was while recording Forgotten Sons that Fish experienced “a dark power trapped in the song”, as he recalled in Script For A Jester’s Tear’s sleevenotes, describing how the studio went icy cold when the band multi-tracked the monk-like chant of the song’s “prayer” section. “The Marquee studios are built on top of an old plague pit where hundreds of bodies are supposedly buried,” Fish wrote, implying that the song was inhabited with the ghostly spirits of the dead.

The artwork: “Mark Wilkinson’s covers helped establish a strong visualisation for the band”

Knowing how strongly their prog-rock forebears Yes were associated with the visual innovations of Roger Dean, Marillion had turned to artist Mark Wilkinson to work similar wonders for them on Market Square Heroes’ single picture sleeve. Continuing what would soon become an era-defining partnership, Wilkinson designed the album cover for Script For A Jester’s Tear, working from Fish’s brief to capture the jovial façade of a medieval court jester along with the deep-seated sorrow lurking within.

Purposefully blurred as if to imply his lowly existence as a Fool, the jester wears a pained expression on his featureless face as he plays the fiddle, the sight of his bony fingers and chequered trousers making for an instantly iconic image. “I think Mark Wilkinson’s covers in the early days helped establish a strong visualisation for the band,” Steve Rothery told Prog magazine. “I think that really helped. It gave us a very strong identity.”

Not only did Wilkinson’s artwork capture Marillion’s flirtations with medieval-era melodicism to give weight to Fish’s socially acute observations of the modern world, but it also fed into the frontman’s perception of fame itself. Often given to painting his face on stage in dedication to putting on a show, Fish felt like he was masking his own despair to win fan approval, in much the same way a jester risked treason for lambasting the folly of a monarch.

The release: “It’s got an atmosphere and cohesiveness about it. It sounds like a complete work”

Released on 14 March 1983, Script For A Jester’s Tear peaked at No.7 in the UK, proving that prog-rock was alive and well despite the best efforts of the punk revolution. From the literary allusions to Homer’s Odyssey in The Web, in which Fish channels the broken-heartedness of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, to the winsome tale of an aspiring starlet seeking fame on Chelsea Monday (“Patience, my tinsel angel/One day they’ll really love you”), Marillion’s debut album waved a marotte in its gambit for fame.

The album’s second single, Garden Party, became Marillion’s biggest hit to date – a rip-roaring attack on class snobbery that reached No.16 in the UK, establishing itself as one of the best Marillion songs of all time. Written after Marillion played a gig in Cambridge where upper-class toffs turned up their noses at the group, Fish foams at the gills as he sarcastically lampoons the audience’s hobbies (“I’m punting, I’m beagling/I’m wining, reclining/I’m rucking, I’m fucking”), deriding the pretentiousness of the Oxbridge elite like Wat Tyler leading the peasant’s revolt. With Steve Rothery on scintillating form throughout, the song latches the ire of punk to a prog-rock pitchfork and drives it through a toffee-nosed scarecrow.

Script For A Jester’s Tear would sell more than 300,000 copies in the UK and go on to be certified platinum, marking the start of Marillion’s career as the leading purveyors of neo-prog. “For me it’s got an atmosphere and cohesiveness about it,” keyboardist Mark Kelly told The Progressive Aspect when asked about the album in 2020. “It sounds like a complete work. At the time we were REALLY happy with it – very proud of it.” Remaining one of Marillion’s most iconic and beloved records, Script For A Jester’s Tear is one of the best debut albums from a band that, with the help of future releases such as Fugazi and Misplaced Childhood, would reverse the downward trend of prog-rock. It remains an essential listen.

Find out which ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ tracks laugh their way into the best Marillion songs.

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