The Iranian palm reader in Galashiels told me in 1980 that I would have 3 different careers and that the second would make me famous and wealthy while the third would disappoint a lot of people at first but in the end lead me to even greater levels of success. This was just as a forestry worker was about to make the big leap at 22 years old into the music business. I'd just started singing with a band in the Scottish borders and 15 gigs later in January 1981 I joined an unknown outfit called Marillion. Enough words have been written about that period between signing the recording contract with EMI Records in September 1982 and my eventual resignation in October 1988 but not as many have been written about the period that was to become my third career as a solo artist.
To some I disappeared from the scene after my first solo album with EMI, others have stuck around as my career ducked and dived through the 90's, sometimes out of control, always out of fashion, out of synch and in recent years out of the mainstream.
The songs were always there along with the quality and diversity people have expected from my work. Perhaps too much diversity at times. So much so that directions were hard to fathom or understand and the eclectic nature was sometimes too demanding to follow. I don't really fit with any particular genre. You can find positive reviews in Heavy Metal magazines as well as Folk or Country based publications. For those who discover what I do it's more often than not a surprise. "I never knew you sounded like that" or "I didn't expect this at all" is a pretty standard reaction followed by "Why do we never hear from you these days?" or "why don't more people know what you're doing?". I went missing, not through choice, rather through circumstance. I never had a formula. I just have always written and played music I've liked and enjoyed, a maverick tendency that doesn't always go down well with some people including fans!
It's not an arrogance or bloody mindedness, just an attitude that's an essential part of my nature.
After hearing Ray Davies sing "Lola" I fell in love with the words and the ability to set a story to music and to this day I still consider myself more of a lyricist rather than a musician. I was gifted at English at Dalkeith High School but it wasn't really a subject that interested me. In particular creative writing was a strongpoint and the discovery of "Progressive Rock" with it's lengthy tracks and dramatic feel proved too strong an attraction for a sexually immature and socially awkward, romantic teenager. I didn't have the peer pressure of an older brother or sister to initiate me in the Beatles or Stones, I had Alan Freeman on Saturday afternoons on Radio one playing Genesis, Floyd and Yes along with traditional songwriting fare from Elton John, Sandy Denny and The Faces!
When I joined the "Blewitt" band in 1980 I successfully auditioned with Free's "Alright Now" and proceeded to discover Ry Cooder, Little Feat and Steely Dan through my mentor at the time Frank Usher who would eventually join my first solo band in 89. I didn't fix onto any style in particular. I didn't belong to any "tribe". It was this attitude to music that made me what I am today.
I'm just as happy singing Blues as much as R&B or straightforward Rock and Roll as much as more "complicated" or "progressive" pieces. It is this that has been as much of a problem as an asset in my solo career.
In the late Autumn of 1988 the prospect of writing a solo album seemed a daunting task. I hadn't "squirreled" away any songs from the band's writing sessions although I had a few crystals of lyrical ideas all awaiting music. I needed a co-writer and he came in the shape of keyboard player Mickey Simmonds who I'd met again in the Summer of 88 while playing squash with Mike Oldfield. Mickey had been playing in Mike's band but was looking for something else as roadwork was over. He came down to my house in Gerrards Cross and after selling me a dodgy Helpinstill piano proceeded to settle in to writing of the first solo album, "Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors".
The house was put up for sale as my funds were limited and I recognised that I had to find a new base for my new solo career. I needed rehearsal rooms and storage space as well as a home and after much consideration decided to move back to my native Scotland as much for spiritual as financial reasons. My departure from Marillion although thought about for a long time wasn't planned and in retrospect I could have left in a less dramatic and more carefully thought out fashion. My heart as always ruled and I suddenly found myself without a pay check and with a huge mortgage. The house sale cleared the debts and the gave me funds to back what was to be a very expensive reckoning with reality. My Mum and Dad found my new lair. A farmhouse outside the county town of Haddington in East Lothian. I'd married my wife Tammi in the local abbey in 1987 and I was only a few miles away from where I'd been brought up in Dalkeith. It felt like coming home.
The house was badly run down but had outbuildings in which I could retreat and plan my first foray as a solo artist. The "Vigil.." album was put together in the only dry shed on the property.
A building which had been used to house Italian prisoners of war and in later years a children's playroom. As we worked on the album ideas began to hatch and plans started to form and the outbuilding made it's first transition from a rehearsal room into a well equipped demo studio. The imagination and impetuosity that had brought me to Spittalrig farm set down to fulfilling the dream of creating my own recording studio complex where I could settle down to building the "Great Third Career". First there was an album to deliver and in the Summer of 89 I went down to the Townhouse Studios in London to record "Vigil.." with producer Jon Kelly who had been introduced to me by John Cavanagh an ex EMI executive, great friend and manager since I went solo!
Jon had produced amongst others Kate Bush and Chris Rea and I felt that his style would be sympathetic to the new material. His job was to translate me into a solo artist.
He did so with style and the band that was to tour the album started to come together. Mickey was obviously in and he was soon joined by Frank Usher who I'd promised to audition if I ever went solo. I made the promise in 1980!!
Hal Lindes from Dire Straits came in at writing stage on suggestion of Chris Kimsey who had produced two Marillion albums and as well as being a close friend was also one of the many "Guardian Angels" looking after this fledgling solo artist! Hal played guitar in the studio but was unwilling to go on the road. His place was to be taken by Robin Boult, an old friend from Aylesbury, my old stomping ground in the early 80's.
Mark Brzezicki from Big Country came in on drums and John Giblin came in on bass after a welcome suggestion from Jon Kelly who'd worked with him on other sessions. Mark I'd known for some time as the Dunfermline-based band and myself had crossed paths on many an occasion in the 80's. Their guitarist Bruce Watson played in the band at the first solo concert in Lockerbie, a charity event on March 21st 1989 in aid of the Disaster Fund. Also present were John Keeble, Spandau ballet's drummer (who played on the version of "Internal Exile" recorded during the EMI "Vigil.." sessions), Janick Gers, who was about to join Iron Maiden (he was to co-write and play on "View From the Hill" on the "Vigil" album sessions), Hal, Mickey, Frank, Neil Hay (well known Scottish session bass player who was to tragically die of cancer a few years later) and Alison Jones on violin. High points on those '89 sessions were singing "live" with a full orchestra on the "Gentleman's.." recording at Abbey Road Studio 2 (you can hear my knees shaking on the take!) and using a horn section for the first time on "Big Wedge". I had started to explore possibilities and although the album was a "Hangover" from the Marillion style there was enough individuality to encrypt a solo performance. I was proud to deliver the album to EMI in the late Summer of '89. I thought an October release would be perfect and the touring outfit was put together, Steve Brzezicki, Mark's brother coming in on bass and Robin replacing Hal. We were ready for lift off! It was then that the dark clouds started to gather.
I was asked to delay the release of "Vigil.." in order not to clash with my ex-bands new release. EMI wanted to delay the release until early 1990 to avoid a conflict at retail which had already established itself in the media through coverage of a messy and bitter "divorce ". Spring '90 was suggested and I went along with the schedule on the understanding that EMI would release a single with full support to enable me to tour in the Autumn and release the album with a world shattering promotion campaign!
"State of Mind" was released debuting in the UK Top 40 and swiftly dying. Rather than going in with a "bullet" like most of my singles to date it went in with an anchor!
I'd found it very hard coming to terms with my new career and a Highlands and Islands tour of Scotland drew great reviews but more funds as not for the first time I would take a gamble on a daring path. I took a concert hall production into small venues and got a kicking in return. The tour was ambitious and expensive and it was only when I finished the full European tour that I realised just how expensive! "Big Wedge" was released January 89, hit Top 20 UK and nose-dived! The album did well and "Gentleman's" also hit Top 40 UK in late Spring. Funds were running out fast and the advance for the second solo album were never going to cope with the overheads! It was doubtful whether I could even record the album, never mind keep myself together for another year.
It's a very long boring story and embarrassingly well-documented in the press during '91 but in the Summer of '90 the day after selling out the Albert Hall in London I entered litigation with EMI records as I attempted to extricate myself from what I considered to be an unlawful contract!
Lawyers were loosed from chains after discussions on renegotiation broke down and within a heartbeat I was shackled by a High Court injunction forbidding me from releasing recordings.
Because of the nature of the existing EMI contract I was unable to record unless I financed it myself and without release of new material and backing of a Record company concert Promoters were unwilling to back a tour! I was unable to work and the promising new solo career effectively stalled. This was threatening to be a still birth.
The main problem was no-one explained to me fully about the costs of legal proceedings and my team were relying on a bluff to secure victory! The big problem was that the opposition knew our strategy! My funds were diverted to the building of the new studio "The Funny Farm" as named by John Keeble. I'd already been mugged by the recent tour so my position wasn't spectacular! I was playing poker with millionaires and when the stakes were raised I had to leave the table, tail between my legs and a huge legal bill to go with it! The Winter of 1990 was the starkest in my personal history. My wife was pregnant with our first child who appeared to know the score and was refusing to enter this world of gloom and despondency that belonged to her headstrong father! She was eventually born on the 1st January by Caesarean section.
I will never forget that period in my life and one moment in particular is sharp in memory, lying naked on the floor one very early morning with Tammi, both of us crying our eyes out as we didn't know if we'd have a house to live in when our child was born as the banks were putting pressure on us to settle the loans. The only work I'd get in the next few months was an acting role in a BBC drama, "Jute City". It was on set that I received the phone call from my lawyer telling me that unless I could gather 750,000 pounds by Thursday the case was over and I would have to settle the affair with EMI. I didn't need an accountant to tell me the game was over. Polydor had been in the wings for some time but avoided getting in the firing line!
When they came on board with the deal I was immediately in serious debt to the Company as they paid all my legal expenses as well as the "buy-out" for my contract from EMI.
The personal advances brought me back my debts to a near-realistic level but the problem was that my creative head was polluted with "Legalese" and business concerns rather than with musical direction and song writing. I was absurdly bitter with the music industry and I lost contact with the artist for quite a time. "Vigil.." was daunting, the second album "Internal Exile" was overwhelming. The writing sessions happened over distinct periods of time and so were fragmented in style. I basically didn't know what I was doing and in what direction I was supposed to be travelling!
The result was an album of wildly different styles. Rather than a statement of direction this was a roundabout. Previously suppressed folk influences combined with Progressive and Country feels to leave me in a hinterland that producer Chris Kimsey would do his best with trying to find a thread of stylish continuity. It would be the first album recorded at the "Funny Farm Studios" (now named "Millennium Studios") the construction and equipping of which was financed by massive bank loans and "friendly" investors both of whom would tie me to a rock at low tide.
Chris was brought in to sort me out at my request. His work on the two "big" Marillion albums made him an attractive proposition to Polydor and I trusted him to get me back on line on both a personal and professional footing. Ted McKenna from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band came in on drums until he was replaced mid-album by Ethan Johns. There was a lot of pressure on the team and the studio was untried. We were the guinea pigs. Problem after problem came at us and Chris wasn't used to an environment that was being designed and tested around him as we worked. German engineer Thomas Stiehler was also on board for the album having assisted Chris on "Misplaced Childhood". He was convinced the studio was haunted and he consulted a medium in Germany who told him to smoke the rooms out with burning Italian sage! It worked and the gremlins were banished!! The album was unbelievably completed in time and delivered to an enthusiastic Polydor Records. Mark Wilkinson had once again designed the cover, a homage to all those "Boy's Own" books that I used to get at Christmas as a kid. I was rediscovering my Scottish roots at the same time as a new wave of Nationalism was taking hold of our country. A general election was in the wings and the media were nervous of this new rise in demand for Home Rule. A bad time to release an album of pro Scottish viewpoint! I hadn't had an album out since early 1990 and I needed to tour and get back into the public eye. The album was released quickly after recording. Too quick in retrospect (Isn't that so easy?).
"Internal Exile" the first single followed the pattern of "In/Out" as did the second single released in January 92; "Credo". I hoped that the relative success of "Credo" could be built upon but the indecision on singles that followed cost me dearly. "Lucky" was ditched in favour of a cover version of "Something in the Air" but the momentum had gone and it died a quiet death. Few mourned! I had under-estimated the damage that the EMI affair had done and my interviews at the time made increasingly boring reading as I tried to educate all and sundry about the music business and how it had done for me! I cringe when I think about them. No wonder people switched off! The writing on the wall was in fluorescent paint! The next album had to hit home or the "act" was going to be written off. I wasn't ready to record the next studio album and the bitterness and severe lack of confidence badly affected my writing capability. I elected to indulge myself in a covers album "Songs from the Mirror" in an attempt to rediscover my love of music which had all but evaporated during the litigation and aftermath. It was recorded in the Summer of 1992. I'd just fired my manager John Cavanagh and had taken on ex-Yes manager Brian Lane in order to get some weight and muscle behind my career. The year had started badly as after our first family holiday for years I was told while in Kenya that Andy Field, one of my oldest and best friends as well as being my production manager and "Guru", had died after a long fight with cancer. Soon after Mickey Simmonds, who was still my principal co-writer, resigned to work with Mike Oldfield and to cap it all I lost my publishing contract with it's advances which were planned to take me through the rest of the year!
The Polydor advances disappeared quickly as the "Internal Exile" tour had ruptured the finances after the UK tour promoter went bust just as I was finishing production rehearsals in Elgin.
Once again finances were governing decisions and that pressure on top of a huge loss of confidence from my litigation and disappointing sales made creative writing a difficult proposition. "Songs From The Mirror" bridged the gap and filled the release schedule and gave me time to get myself together for the next studio album which was to be called "Suits". A confrontation with Polydor occurred as they wanted the new studio album first. The rift was never healed and could only have been through a hit album whose sales would pacify the accountants questioning my existence on the label. The questions were answered in March '93, two months after release of "Songs". Thus ended my flirtation with Polydor and my relationship with the Major record labels as I couldn't face touting myself around the mainstream companies another time. Since the EMI and Polydor fiascos my reputation as a "Company friendly" artist had disappeared and my recent sales weren't attractive enough to securely hook another "golden deal"! I had become slightly 'persona non grata' so instead opted to go "Independent", forming my own Record company Dick Bros after advice from a medium! Once again the Spirit world entered my sphere of thinking and a good friend of mine phoned up out the blue and told me he had to speak to me. Bill was the same guy who had advised me on the studio after we'd become convinced that the buildings were subject to a ghostly infestation! This time I was presented with a message from my Grandfather who to cut a long story short advised me to "take all my business ideas through to manufacturing and sell the product myself". It was all I needed to excite the plan I had been thinking about and promptly set up The Dick Brothers Record Company Ltd as the new vehicle for my career. Dick Bros had been the family garage business in Dalkeith, Midlothian which had been started by my Grandfather and after his death run by my father Robert Dick. It was a strange feeling asking my father in '93 if I could name the new company after the family business and emotions were very high on the release day of the first of my own titles, "Sushi", a double live CD taken from the concert in Utrecht Holland ironically on the very day that Polydor dropped me! Live work had become our staple means of support since '92 when I set out on a club tour of Scotland to help plug the gap left by Polydor's reluctance to provide anymore advances. The live work continued throughout '92 and into '93 and finally touring was supplying a steady form of income. I'd recorded a number of shows in recent years and my live reputation and loyal fan base was a killing ground for Bootleggers. The release of 5 titles in 1993 on a label called "Battleside" which I'd set up to deal with licensing the albums provided enough money to keep me in house and home and also to support the recording of the new studio album which we'd been writing and rehearsing live throughout the previous year. These titles also undermined the Bootleggers who quickly lost interest in producing their lesser quality and more expensive titles.
With the arrival of Dick Bros it seemed appropriate to sign in with another live show and "Sushi" was well received, selling enough copies to pay for the promotion and marketing of the "Suits" album and the video for "Lady Let It Lie" the first single from the project released in April 1994, a month before the album which would reach No. 1 in the UK independent charts.
The band had changed a lot since "Vigil..". Mickey Simmonds had been replaced on keyboards by Foster Paterson a well known Scottish session player who like the ever-present Frank Usher had also worked with John Martyn as well as Julia Fordham and Camel. Davey Paton, ex Pilot, Elton John and Bay City Rollers (!!) had arrived on bass during "Internal Exile" and with Robin Boult had made up the touring outfit of recent years. The drum stool which forever revolved was now occupied by Kevin Wilkinson (Ex Waterboys and China Crisis). The writing team on "Suits" had been joined by producer of "Songs" James Cassidy who I'd originally met while recording tracks for Jeff Wayne's "Spartacus", the 'not as critically acclaimed' follow-up to the 70's classic "War of the Worlds"!
"Lady Let It Lie" and "Fortunes of War" derived from this period which was as always transitional! Grooves came to the fore on "Songs" and the "Suits" album took their lead.
I was getting braver but not as brave as I could have been. As the first studio album on Dick Bros it played a bit safe but the song writing was developing. I was following the urge to write songs rather than "pieces" and James introduced me to a new simplicity with regards songwriting. Owning my own studio had given me the freedom to create and record relatively inexpensively and I would never again be at the mercy of lack of funds to record an album. It was a commercial studio and although part of my house had played host to outside projects as well as my own."Suits" was recorded in the Autumn of '93 and I was excited with the creative process again. "Songs From The Mirror" had played it's part in my rebirthing and the rediscovery of the magic of music pulled me into new areas under the guidance of James Cassidy.
There were still the "Epic" tracks but also an awareness of classic songwriting mixed with solid rhythms and a different approach to lyrics as well. I was not afraid of relying on hooks or repeating phrases. Altogether a less "wordy" approach came to the fore. The groove had arrived after a long time coming. I believe that the roadwork had given the band less of a "session" feel and it was a tight unit indeed that recorded the "Suits" album. As I was now to find, producing a great album means nothing if no-one hears it. The realities of running a label hit hard and fast. The promotion and marketing costs were tough to raise and once again the road called as we plugged the album anywhere and everywhere we could.
Acoustic sets in record shops led me into a full acoustic tour that would provide the set that would be used on the second single release. I decided to go for "Fortunes of War" and release the single as a digipack capable of holding 4 CD's that would be released over a 3 week period each CD having a different version of the lead track in order to fulfil the chart regulations. It was an attempt to keep the single in the charts for longer than a week. The shops didn't understand the release pattern and the single followed the others into the nether regions of the charts. The 4 CD single since deleted now provides the tracks which make up the "Fortunes of War" acoustic live set released in 1998. The touring was incessant and grew into a world-wide venture. The album sold well considering the backing it had and I knew that I needed something to sustain the impetus and at the same time get me into areas I'd not touched. I decided to go for a "best of.." set over two albums with the title of "Yin" and "Yang". 13 out of the 26 tracks were re-recorded in the Spring of 95 and released that Autumn spearheaded by the single, "Just Good Friends", a re-recording of the "Exile" album track which would now become a duet with Sam Brown. You know the rest. The tour finally finished in May 97 just after we returned from a South American tour and the ultimate experience that would influence the next album "Sunsets on Empire", a two week tour of Bosnia playing to the IFOR troops who were implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement.
After so long away from writing material the need to "communicate" or "release" was crushing. I'd decided to change producers and the principal writers in order to continue the development which had began on the "Suits" sessions. I also recognised the need for an ambitious album. This wasn't a time to play safe and after meeting publisher Dave Massey at Midem, the industry's convention in Cannes, I was introduced to the material of Steve Wilson who had two projects, "Porcupine Tree" and "No-Man", both of which I found interesting. I met Steve in London on my return and we set about organising the ideas that would comprise the bulk of the "Sunsets" material.
Writing began in earnest in June and the recording swiftly followed. Steve would not only produce but also play the main keyboards and guitar parts assisted once again by Robin, Frank, and Foss but augmented with the "new" rhythm section of Dave "Squeeky" Stewart and Ewen Vernall. Dave had arrived after the "Suits" recording when Kevin Wilkinson was offered a world tour with the Proclaimers. He'd auditioned when Kevin got the job but I thought he was too green then. In 95 he was to fit in perfectly and his style has become an important part of the overall band sound. The most flexible and talented drummer I have ever worked with he's also lasted the longest in the position! The bass position also changed during the "Yin/Yang" tour when David Paton left under dubious circumstances to join Elton John requiring his replacement to be brought in at short notice from the recently defunct Deacon Blue. Steve was a principal mover in my career and next to Mickey Simmonds played an essential role in my never ending musical education. Loops and grooves were to the front and samples mixed with a new aggression and confidence to create what I consider to be my finest album since "Vigil". The songs, writing and recording, the production and the performances were first class and at last I was looking at the breakthrough as a solo artist into the mainstream industry.
"Brother 52" the first single drew great reviews but failed to get airplay and subsequently disappeared though leaving good vibes for the album in it's wake.
"Sunsets on Empire" was released a month later in May 97 with once again great reviews generally but failing to convince the media and masses that this was a breakthrough album.
Hampered by lack of funds buying promotion and advertising was out of the question so once again I resorted to the road. The gigs were outstanding and everyone who discovered the album loved it. 115 dates in 22 countries later it was December 97 and the results weren't as I had hoped for. The formula wasn't working in my favour and due to circumstances my ambitious plans had once again not paid off. The debts from the tour were too much to bear and the prospect of further touring depressed me. It was time for a rethink and a revamp of my ideas and ultimately my approach to writing and recording. I was producing great material in my opinion and an invitation to one of Miles Copeland's writing retreats in France convinced me that it was time to concentrate on the artist rather than the business activities that had overwhelmed my energy resources in recent years.
The recording studio was put up for sale and I actively looked for a new label that would be sympathetic to my music and at the same time retain the "Indy" values I felt comfortable with.
I'd come back from the "Castle", Miles' Chateau, with 6 songs, 5 of which were suited to my new project. With 10 years as a solo artist behind me it was also time to put together a collection of songs on one album that truly represented my output over the period. A chance meeting with Tony Turrell and Mark Daghorn, two writers and dance remixers led to the idea of working on one of their ideas, a 27 minute slab of groove and atmospherics and turning it into a miasma of musical styles corresponding to my own eclectic tastes. They were up for it and I brought in Elliot Ness, who had worked on the "Sunsets" project to engineer and produce my last solo album at Millennium Studios."Tales From The Big Bus", another double live CD, this time from the 97 tour was released to follow up the "Official Bootleg" series which now had 7 titles on Dick Bros. The recording started in July and by the end of August I had the new album "Raingods With Zippos" well underway and a catalogue signed to Roadrunner Records. It was agreed that the entire Dick Bros and Fish solo catalogue would be released in 98 with the project built round a 'best of' album.
As I looked back on a career that has spent more time in the doldrums and darkness than in the bright lights of public awareness I realised that I had metamorphosed into a "real songwriter".
The styles were varied and still "progressive" in nature but at the heart of it all there were great songs. Most of this material is relatively unknown to most people and the collection being a reflection of my widely different creative impulses and influences could only have one title. I hope that "A Kettle of Fish" provides an indication of where I'm at and where I've been during all those years I was pronounced missing in action. It's not been easy as you've surmised but I've always believed that in the end it would work out.
With the world-wide release of all this material and a new album waiting in the wings for release early in 1999 I can only hope that what the Iranian palm reader saw in my hand is about to come true!
Take care and stay alive
August 1998 - Kettle of Fish Sleeve notes (version 2)
In 1980, a 22 year old forestry worker had his palm read by an Iranian student in Galashiels, Scotland. I'd just started singing with local pub rock band "Blewitt" bashing out a variety of covers from Free's "Alright Now" to Steely Dan's "Night by Night" and taking in Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder and the Average White Band along the way, most Thursday nights in "The Golden Lion". I'd had a dream since I was a kid that one day I'd be a famous singer but up until joining "Blewitt" my only experience had been with Miss Marshall's choir at King's Park Primary School Dalkeith where shortly after my debut singing "Ye Banks and Braes" and "St. Lucia" at Donaldson's school for the deaf in Edinburgh I was fired for not attending rehearsals. I still have the same problem today!
A chance meeting after a Peter Gabriel gig in Edinburgh in March 1980 led me to a failed audition with a local band and the resolve to finally make a dream come true. I auditioned for "Blewitt" and became their new frontman even after nearly getting fired for being totally plastered on my first show and throwing up over my all white outfit of Indian cotton shirt and flared trousers as soon as the gig finished. My stage outfits are still dodgy but I've got over the after-show "nerves".
I'd been a late starter on all counts and getting the urge to join a rock and roll band at 22 with no previous experience was a sign of things to come. The palm reader told me that I'd have 3 careers and that I was about to start the second which would lead me to becoming World famous. That was all the prodding I required to make the jump from a 4 year old forestry college course into the murky waters of the music business.
He also added that the third career would also be a major move and that in the process of changing I would upset a lot of people but in the end this career would lead me to greater things and even bigger successes! I felt lucky!
My early influences had been varied. The first single I bought at a Jumble Sale was "Lola" by the Kinks and I immediately fell in love with lyrics and the ability to tell a story through word and song. I'd missed out on the Beatles and Stones not having the peer pressure from an elder brother or sister. Instead I discovered the world of "progressive" music through listening to Alan Freeman's Saturday afternoon programmes on Radio 1. This socially and physically awkward teenagers romantic fantasies were captured by the albums of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes but at the same time I was also into T Rex whose "Electric Warrior" album was the first long playing record I bought after a realising that all the "Top of the Pops" albums I was buying with the scantily clad beauties on the cover weren't the genuine article (perhaps I only bought them for the covers!). I loved the Faces, the Who and Deep Purple as much as Elton John and Paul McCartney. I never felt part of any "tribe" and could get a kick out of Led Zeppelin as much as Carole King. The roots I suppose were "progressive" and soon after playing my last show with "Blewitt" supporting Alexis Korner in Melrose on the 13th December I joined Marillion on the 1st January 1981. They offered me the chance to indulge my primary influences and the prospect of writing lyrics and singing meandering and dramatic epics in a variety of outlandish time signatures was too much to turn down! The rest as they say is history and enough has already been written about the period between 81 and my eventual resignation from the band in Autumn '88. My solo career has never received the same recognition or attention and to a lot of people I went missing soon after my first solo album "Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors" in January 1990.
This wasn't through choice, rather circumstance. The prospect of writing a solo album was daunting and I was petrified by the blank sheets of paper that was my new career. I knew I wanted to get away from writing pieces and more into writing songs so the arrival of Mickey Simmonds as keyboard player and co-writer was to guide me down the first avenue of solo creations. An awareness of melody and hooklines came to the fore and a more straightforward approach was maintained throughout the writing sessions of the "Vigil" album which also signalled a relocation from Southern England back to my native Scotland.
My new home was a farmhouse with outbuildings one of which would serve as a demo studio and eventually become a fully fledged recording studio in 1991 and open to host the second solo album "Internal Exile". But between then and the "Vigil" album a lot was to happen. There isn't the space to deal with the full story within these sleeve notes but soon after finishing the "Vigil" world tour I was to enter litigation with EMI records resulting in a High Court injunction that stopped me releasing albums for almost a year. Over ambitious touring cost me dearly and the decision to go ahead with building the new studio meant that funds were rapidly depleted along with my confidence and my creative energies. I virtually disappeared from the public eye during the case which everyone had forgotten to tell me would cost a lot of money if I did get to the High Court. Problem was our only hope lay in a bluff and the opposition knew it! Like playing poker with millionaires eventually I had to leave the table, tail between my legs and a huge legal bill to follow! I couldn't deal with the aftermath, the defeat and what I considered the betrayal. I went from being the "golden boy" to the "spoilt prince" very quickly. I was scared by what I perceived as being a rejection and the prospect of writing the follow up for the new label, Polydor, filled me with dread. Direction? Content? I didn't know where I should head and the result was a "roundabout" of an album, flirting with styles but never getting into a particular groove and locking into a direction. The songs I considered well up to standard but even the acquisition of Chris Kimsey as producer couldn't save the project as he bravely attempted to come to terms with a newly built studio and an artist plagued by bitterness and cynicism toward the industry. To make matters worse I'd also embraced the new Wave of Scottish Nationalism gripping my "new" home and previously suppressed Folk leanings and influences began to rear their head. There are great songs on "Internal Exile" but as an album it didn't gel! As an example "Just Good Friends" was recorded at this time but didn't achieve it's potential until the re-recording in 95 for the "best of." collection "Yin" and "Yang" which allowed me to re-visit the halcyon days of Marillion with 13 tracks from 26 on the two albums re-recorded under the production supervision of James Cassidy. In 1991 I didn't know what I was supposed to be for others as much as myself. The album made ripples rather than waves. Polydor had rushed the album out with my acquiescence resulting in a fractured promotion campaign and disappointing sales. A tour to promote the album was disastrous as the UK promoter went bankrupt just as it was about to kick off resulting in a position very much behind the 8-ball before I even considered writing the next studio album.
Once again finances ruled my creative mind as I tried to decipher a direction from my heart.
Should I take a more acoustic or rock orientated direction on the new album which I was very aware of as being the deciding issue on my Polydor deal. I was broke, financially and creatively. The songs on "Exile" were great but weren't accepted by either the media or the dwindling fan base who were generally disgruntled and confused by my actions in recent years. I decided to confuse the issue further by releasing an album of cover versions called "Songs From The Mirror". Produced by James Cassidy, whom I'd met while both of us were working on Jeff Wayne's "Spartacus" album. James was engineering and my offer of an upgrade to producer was accepted. We started recording in Summer 92 while simultaneously writing material for the next studio album "Suits", a cynical examination lyrically of the Business and the Executives who still fed my cynical outlook on Life.
Polydor wanted a new studio album but I persisted and "Songs" was released with a death knell in January 1993 signalling the end of my brief flirtation with the company.
This album was a turning point for me as an artist. By delving into my past and the influences that had made me what I was I rediscovered myself and the Magic that had brought me here in the first place. "Songs.. " was a key album in my career and fully prepared me for the "Suits" sessions, material which I had been rehearsing constantly on the road as I struggled to pay bills and musicians.
After the drop in 93 I formed my own Record Company, Dick Bros after advice from a medium who passed on messages from my Grandfather. The Co. was named after the garage business he'd started and my Father had ran throughout my childhood. It was an emotional moment when I asked permission from my Dad to resurrect the family business. The first release was "Sushi", a live album to follow the 5 "Official Bootleg" releases on "Battleside" a company that temporarily filled the gap between Polydor and Dick Bros and provided me with a life line and a quality alternative to the illegal live bootlegs on offer that had plagued my career. The two titles that remain from "Battleside", "Pigpen's Birthday" and "Uncle Fish and the Cryptcreepers" represent the euphoria and energy of those first two solo tours. The live arena was the principal battleground particularly from 1992 onward.
With the advent of Dick Bros I knew I couldn't compete with the majors on a Pound for Pound promotional strategy and resorted to good old fashioned touring to make the public aware of my presence through reviews and interviews with anyone who'd listen. Financially I became reliant on T-shirt and "bootleg" sales to supplement touring income and ironically the root of most of my earlier career problems was to become my saviour for a while!
The live experience has always been more enjoyable as far as I'm concerned. The bum notes disappear in the wind (unless they're caught on an "official bootleg") and there isn't that awareness of posterity or the analysis that exists in the studio. Adrenaline rules. With major changes in the line up of the solo bands there is always a chemistry change and a fundamental difference in approach and performance every time a new member joins.
There's another interpretation and a new angle found. Singing live in recent years has not only increased my confidence but made me more versatile as a singer and more aware of the soul and technique of singing. In 92 "Songs" and the embryonic "Suits" album were constructed and rehearsed on the road, in 92 a 40-odd date tour of clubs in Scotland and Northern England and in 93 the full international exposé from the "Songs.." tour nurtured the forthcoming recordings and led to a tightness in the band not often found in a "session " musician based outfit.
With "Suits" I could have been more adventurous but the side effects of the "drop" and the pressure on delivering an album that would be "accepted" led me into a making a safer move than perhaps I should have made. My confidence had grown but I was well aware that the new label could live or die on this release and it's demise would also take my house and studio with it.
I was excited by the new songs, some of which were co-written with James Cassidy who'd stayed on since producing "Songs.." to assist in the "cunning plan". His classical training and expertise with arrangements proved invaluable and together with his awareness and experience with "modern" production techniques the material was guaranteed to enter a new direction and begin to gain a momentum that would usher the solo career into a new era. The band was incredibly tight after miles of roadwork and the grooves dominated the recording. Perhaps some editing on the endings may have helped the curve of the album but I was getting off on recording and starting to find a vibe in the studio similar to the live experience. The aggression was tempered slightly and the production was perhaps too rich for some tastes but the songs were there. The lyrics again stripped down and to the point. It never showed more than in the acoustic sets of 1994, a by-product of endless in-store promotions and radio sessions to support the first single "Lady Let It Lie". This lean approach would allow me to embark on a series of international adventures into territories I could never have contemplated with the full Electric production. Touring took precedent and I was well aware that road work was at the expense of writing a new studio album. I went for the break and opted for the two "best of's..", "Yin" and "Yang" containing re-recorded material from the Marillion era and solo albums, to give me the fuel and introduction to countries I'd never managed to reach so far with my career. Released in 1995 these albums allowed me to stay on the road for nearly two years plugging away and hoping for the breakthrough that would give me the space to take a breath and write the new material. It never happened till 97 when after a tour of Bosnia playing to the UN IFOR troops I reached the stage where I had to get experiences out and onto paper or crack up through the intensity of the accumulated overload of observations and emotions incurred in the last two years. I needed to go for the brave move this time, no prisoners, do or die!
I was introduced to Steve Wilson, main man behind "Porcupine Tree" and "No Man", who although sympathetic to the "progressive" genre had no intention of getting involved in a regressive album. This suited me fine and I welcomed Steve's influence with open ears. The writing sessions were open and new songs and approaches were generated from a healthy friction between Steve and I as we fought for our identities in the material. Grooves and loops led the rhythmic foundations into what we described as "Progressive Nouveux", still retaining the drama and tension associated with my previous work but taking it into a more modern setting with a new edge and aggression. Calum Malcolm's mix and Elliot Ness' engineering skills provided a technical quality to match the high standard of the writing and "Sunsets on Empire " I consider my best work to date. But once again the problem of underfunded promotion and advertising was to foil our cunning plans and a 115 date tour of 22 countries was set up to attempt to give the album the attention it deserved. Seven months after it's release the tour ground to an exhausted conclusion in December 97 and I was very aware my gamble hadn't paid off. I hadn't made the impact I'd hoped for and a combination of tour losses and bad debts from third parties threw me once again into the Danger Zone. I had to change my approach and recognised I could no longer survive as an Independent artist releasing my albums through Dick Bros. I was effectively broke and financing the recording of the new album "Raingods With Zippos" was beyond my means.
I understood that if I was to survive I needed to restructure my entire approach as well as my life. In May 97 I was asked to take part in a writing retreat in France by Miles Copeland. Together with 23 other songwriters from all over the World and from all styles of music I was temporarily removed from all outside distractions and put in a position that for the first time in years I could concentrate on creating music rather than deal with business or financial hassles. I rediscovered myself and on returning with six new songs I was excited and eager to get on with the job of redefining my career and writing the rest of the new album.
Two tracks, "Chasing Miss Pretty" and "Mr Buttons" were allocated to the proposed "best of.." album while three others were set up for "Raingods" together with a 27 minute epic "Plague of Ghosts" written together with Tony Turrell and Mark Daghorn and 2 tracks written with old sparring partner Mickey Simmonds.
Elliot Ness returned to take control of the desk and Calum Malcolm assumed the role of mixing the new album and putting together the Remasters of the catalogue of the now defunct Dick Bros label and the "Best Of.." This would act as spearhead for the world-wide release on Roadrunner records of the entire Fish solo material since 1988 when I embarked on the "Third Career". At last I had a major company backing me and with the sale of the studio in process I was returning to what I most love and what I'd realised I was still good at - being a creative artist!
As I look back on a career that has spent more time in the doldrums and darkness than in the bright lights of public awareness I realised that I'd metamorphosed into a "real songwriter". The styles have always been varied and always "progressive" in nature but always at the heart of it all there's been great songs. Most of this material is relatively unknown to most people and the collection being a reflection of my widely different creative impulses and influences could only have one title.
I hope that "A Kettle of Fish" provides an indication of where I'm and where I've been during all those years I was pronounced missing in action. It's never been easy as you've surmised but I've always believed that in the end it would work out. The stage is set once again and with the release of this album and with "Raingods With Zippos" in the pipeline I'm ready to fulfil the dream I had way back in Galashiels.
I can only hope that what the Iranian palm reader saw in my hand is about to come true.
Take care and Stay alive
Fish, August 1998
A Kettle of Fish artist biography 1998