Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gone Fishin' ... (for marzipan)

So there I was, setting out to write a gig review and it's gone down a slightly odd path, as you'll see. On Friday last week, I was privileged to be able to see Fish, one of my oldest (as in longest-running, rather than in the geriatric sense) musical heroes playing to his home audience in Haddington, East Lothian.  I've posted before about my youthful fandom for Marillion, and my enjoyment  (modest understatement) of their music in their early days. Marillion's "Factor X" for me in those days was their frontman(mountain) Fish, Derek William Dick, all 10 foot tall of him (a bit like Mel Gibson's portrayal of William Wallace in the film "Braveheart" - "blowing fireballs and lightning from his ..." - media coverage of Fish's height has extended to the somewhat hyperbolic at times).

To my teenage progressive rock school friends and I, Fish was something of a rock legend - local (a Lothian boy from up the road in Dalkeith), even more deeply uncool than us (he wore kaftans, ferchrissakes!), and he played with this new band that everyone else thought was completely uncool (although surely the Tolkien reference in Marillion should have been worth a bit of street cred for teenage self-discovery - imagine if they emerged now, post Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings!), playing prog rock music that we, the true cognoscenti, recognised for its instrumental virtuosity, its clever lyrics with their knowing puns, multiple entendres, strong personal, social and environmental messages and propensity to last more than four minutes per track.

At the time, for a generation of young prog rock fans who'd missed out on first-hand live experiences of Peter Gabriel's Genesis, the pre-nutjob ("The Wall") era Pink Floyd, and the classic Yes line-ups of the early and mid-1970s, Marillion were our new hope for complicated prog rock music, great live performances and high quality non-mainstream rock. And Fish, all 12 feet of him, was right up there, front of stage, all enigmatic , greasepaint-mask glowers, theatrical performance and exuberant exhorations to sing along ("You take the High road..."). We even had our own gig culture. Jethro Tull fans may have been given a big balloon to bat about the hall, but we threw buns to Marillion on stage (shouting: "Geezabun! As in "how does an elephant ask for a bun?" No, I don't really know how or why it started but I think it started at Edinburgh Marillion gigs, although I'm happy to be contradicted by evidence). We didn't know why we did it but it was our silliness and we loved it. Not sure if the enjoyment lasted as long for the band though!

Anyway, eventually, as music industry history and media coverage has recorded, Fish left Marillion and went "solo in the game" and has for some 20 years, ploughed his own furrow with a merry band of great musicians, turning out a series of great albums, as well as successful forays into acting, as an award-winning rock DJ on Planet Rock and, if you believe the Scottish Sun, a recent reinvention as an Action Man (welcome to my world, Big Man!)... allegedly giving up on women into the bargain ("I get my thrills from keeping fit now - I've had it with women" - Fish, there's something gone wrong here - I spent my young life keeping fit BECAUSE I couldn't find a woman!). Anyway, it was good to see him looking so fit and well last week!

So, after buying his first three solo albums and loving them, I kind of lost touch with what he was doing for a few years, but picked up again on his solo career a couple of years ago, when the epic 13th Star was released (Thanks for the heads-up at the time Pete M!). I was excited to discover recently that he was embarking on an acoustic tour, with just the three F's - Fish, Frank Usher, long-term guitar collaborator and Foss Patterson, long-term keyboard chum. I was even more excited to find that Haddington in East Lothian, Fish's base these days, was on the tour itinerary. I last saw Fish playing live, donkey's (15? 20?) years ago (what have I been doing?), with his full band (including Frank Usher and Robin Boult on guitars) in the Corn Exchange in Haddington. Last week, he was playing along the road in St Mary's Church, the largest church in East Lothian, even bigger than St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Two gigs, Friday and Saturday nights, with the word on his Facebook site for fans being that both shows would be filmed and recorded for subsequent release, and that the production god Calum Malcolm (who produced Scotland's other finest atmospheric big space music guys, The Blue Nile) is lined up to weave his magic on the recordings - fantastic!

I could only make the Friday night and, even with a side visit to see my folks who live only a few miles away, I still managed to be in the first few to arrive before the show (just like the old days - we had so much spare time as teenage rock fans that Pete, Simon and I used to arrive at gigs HOURS before the show and just hang around - it worked out occasionally, we met Rory Gallagher once, which was great).  I was beaten to the venue by four great Dutch folk and their German pal. Their presence confirmed what I've long suspected. The Dutch are (maybe) crazy. They came over for the long weekend FROM HOLLAND, just to see two Fish gigs in East Lothian. Crazy, but lovely and knowledgeable and absolutely devoted to Fish's solo music and his earlier Marillion material. You have to love proper fans, don't you?! Well done guys, I hope you had a grand weekend! Anyway, we were all there early enough to secure front row seats - brilliant! It was a very simple stage, pared down lighting rig and sound system, single chair for Frank and a Roland piano with stool for Foss (along with 15 foot high mike stand for the Big F). The backdrop of the church was, by contrast, quite magnificent, with high vaulted ceilings, tall stained glass arched windows and LOTS of wood and stone:

St Mary's Church, Haddington - Fishbowl for the evening!

I don't think the Friday gig was sold out and despite the size of the space above our heads (see above!), it felt quite intimate, perhaps on account of it actually being quite a narrow space (although long!). Fish opened the show with an unaccompanied version of Chocolate Frogs ("for a heid full of chocolate frogs what can you give to me?"). Now, I can't and won't give a track-by-track listing of the whole show - look elsewhere for that - I tend to live and enjoy live gigs in the moment and quite often can't remember afterwards exactly what I've heard song by song. In fact, I never intended to do so anyway, as the tour continues and I don't see why I should spoil all the surprises for folk still to see the show. But - impressions of the gig - Fish was clearly delighted to be back live in front of a home crowd and revelling in the special stripped-down approach. Some of the material, the other two F's were clearly happy with but Fish joked about some of the older material and how nervous it made them... Indeed, some of the tracks were so old that it is clear that Channel 4's Time Team must have been drafted in to help recover them.  I assume this to be the case as there were so many bald heads and big beards in the crowd that it was clearly a Time Team night-out! Anyway, it won't spoil the tour too much to share a site-specific gag from Fish - he was actually married in this church in the late 1980's and recounted standing at the front with his two Best Men, a few feet from where he was performing, waiting for his German bride to arrive, slightly worse for wear from brandy in the hip flask, terrified by the thought of all the marzipan from all the weddings that had taken place in the church, imagining that it would fill the whole church. More on marzipan later...

Another poor picture from me but I love the effect - my phone camera couldn't cope with the bright stage lights reflecting off light coloured clothing and skin and it makes the three F's shine like inverse silhouettes - weird but really rather nice!
So, there were old Marillion tracks (as Fish mentioned them on his Facebook page, I'm not giving spoilers by saying that they played "Jigsaw" and "Punch and Judy" - fantastic versions) and a catalogue of solo career tracks, right up to date with stuff from 13th Star. Fish, as ever, wore his heart a-sleeve, 'fessing up to having been given the curse of being rubbish at relationships, balanced Yin for Yang, by the gift of being able to write about them. He also is still clearly interested in the story and fate of young working class Scottish lads who end up in the British Army, sent off to hellhole conflicts around the world and then just dumped back here to pick up the pieces afterwards - and there are numbers in this set that reflect that concern. I still like his open, confessional style on stage, and that, with his taking a seat down at our level on the front of the stage (because he was knackered and the other two had seats) created a great intimate feel for the audience, certainly those at the front:

Sorry abut the poor quality pic - my phone camera isn't the best!
Fish, Professor of Angst-Filled Bravado at the University of The Broken Heart takes a seat and has a chat!
So, I only want to report a couple more song-related things from the gig. At the Friday gig, we were treated to an extra song - at one point, Frank played the first few chords of Incommunicado, then stopped, and Fish asked him if he wanted to play it, as they had the time. Frank muttered no, let's do it tomorrow night. But that was no use to me - I wasn't going to be there, so I shouted "Do it now!" and they did! And it was yet another example of a song that shouldn't work without a rythmn section, but working so well as a stripped-down acoustic version. These three guys looked to be having so much fun on stage, even with the edgy worries about nailing some of the older numbers correctly, and a bit of good-natured ribbing about hardly-noticed wee errors in those! And on the subject of older numbers ... they played IT - yes, the one Fish never does live and that people always shout for at gigs! Well, Frank started playing the intro to "Grendel" (Marillion's much beloved (by the fans) 20-minute take on the Beowulf story but from the monster's perspective), following the inevitable shouts from the crowd. Fish said, "Do you want to do it?" and Frank was off, into the guitar intro, with Fish on the first verse and they continued, oh, for a whole minute. I called it the "One-Minute Version" but we could call it the 5% version too! A perhaps never-to-be repeated live experience? It only means something to fans... and you had to be there, but still...

And to recount the sum total of Fish's swearing for the night - it was ... none - he was a good boy and didn't swear (at all!) in church! And so, on the subject of marzipan...

Fish recalled, during Friday night's gig, his wedding day thought that all the marzipan from all the weddings that had taken place in the church might fill the whole church. I thought that deserved more attention so... I've done some calculations. Stick with me ("Listen to me. Just hear me out. If I could have your attention?"). We need to know: volume of marzipan per wedding cake and hence per wedding; number of weddings per year; how long weddings have been held (i.e. number of years = age of church), and the volume of the church.  I've had to make some assumptions... I assumed that marzipan is sold in packs that are 15x10x10 cm (0.15x0.10x0.10 metres) in size, and that 10 packs are used for the average wedding cake. That means that the volume of marzipan per wedding cake and hence per wedding is 10x(0.15x0.10x0.10) = 0.015 cubic metres of marzipan per wedding.  I've assumed that there are 400 weddings a year, which seems high but is only 8 per week in East Lothian's biggest church. Here's the fun bit - Google Brothers Inc. reveals that construction of St Mary's Church began in 1380 so, assuming people started being wed there from that date (in anticipation that it would be finished one day in the future, as indeed it was), that means there have been weddings for 630 years!

So, we have a total volume of marzipan over the lifetime of the church, equal to:

Volume of Marzipan per wedding x Number of Weddings per year x Number of years =

(0.015x400x630) or a total volume of 2835 cubic metres of marzipan.  So, to see if that would fill the church (it does sound like a lot of marzipan, doesn't it?), we need to know the volume of the church. Where to find that? Luckily, being a popular tourist location, there is lots of information on the church to be found at the excellent Google Brothers Inc (other infromation providers are available). The church is 63 metres long and 35 metres wide, but alas, no information is provided on the height (volume of the church, being roughly right-angled at the corners - it is 630 years old after all - is length x width x height). But I was there on Friday, and I would estimate that the average height might be 8 metres. the total volume would therefore be 63 x 35 x 8 = 17640 cubic metres.

Oh... but that's a lot more than the estimated volume of marzipan. In fact, we can calculate the depth of marzipan by dividing the volume of marzipan by the floor area of the church (because depth = (volume/(length x width)). So, that would be 2835/(63 x 35) = almost 1.29 metres. So, a paltry depth of marzipan that would barely reach Fish's waist (he is quite tall).  What a shame! But ... wait one minute - all may not be lost!

When did you ever go to a wedding and see the marzipan in blocks. At the wedding, it is ALWAYS already on the cake! So, I think we can have another go at this, assuming that all wedding cakes have three tiers (they do, don't they?). I reckon the following dimensions are more than reasonable for the three tiers of wedding cakes: upper - 20x20x10 cm; middle - 30x30x20 cm; lower - 40x40x30 cm. Yes, that would be a great wedding cake. Now, instead of the volume of marzipan (we can still assume 10 packs are used,  but it doesn't matter now), we have a volume of (0.2x0.2x0.2)+(0.3x0.3x0.2)+(0.4x0.4x0.3) = 0.07 cubic metres. The wedding cakes are effectively marzipan boxes filled with cake and we need to know the total volume of marzipan boxes. That means our new calculation would be:

Volume of Marzipanned cake per wedding x Number of Weddings per year x Number of years = (0.07x400x630) = 17640 cubic metres which is equal to the volume of the church - fantastic! So, Fish, the church would be marzipan filled SO LONG AS IT WAS ON THE WEDDING CAKES (and assuming my very reasonable assumptions are correct...)

Interestingly (if you are a bit sad), this figure was calculated to 2010 so, when Fish was standing at the altar in the late 1980's awaiting his bride, there was in fact a small gap somewhere at the top of the metaphorical marzipan-filled church awaiting the next 20 years (approximately) worth of marzipanned cakes.

PS If you thought that a headful of chocolate frogs was bad (see above), I found this while looking into marzipan: marzipan frogs. Help!



  1. Er, hate to burst your bubble, but marzipan may have only been placed on wedding cakes since the 19th century, and the idea of tiered wedding cakes is also 19th century, from what I understand. Of course, I may be wrong.

  2. Thanks Kate - but one has to have working assumptions for a model, even if they are incorrect to start with. Let's just pretend, eh?

  3. as you know i dont really listen to fish though i loved `Market Square Heroes`,
    but i do listen to `fish supper` on Planet Rock and really like his show...also Rick Wakemen`s...and fish has indeed done alot for East Lothians music sales of tickets for his Corn Exchange preformances show...
    and he hasnt become a laughing stock like some 7 bar blues and heavy rock musicians have!

  4. I reda this last night but was too tired to comment so thought I would come back today. I'm a fan too an only yesterday was caught by a performance of 'the thieving magpie' overture which immediately had me humming 'geez a bun' as it finished.

    Happy memories for sure.

    but that whole marzipan thing's a bit weird. How long did that take to work out???

    and for God's sake


    Don't you dare say "Why not" by the way!


  5. Dear Scot,

    You are right...the Dutch are crazy. Still, that being said, I loved reading your blog. You described perfectly the feeling of the fridaynight gig. Intimate and warm. We also loved the friday gig!
    Nice to have met you anyway...

    The four (crazy) dutch folk.....
    (and their German friend)

  6. Top post! I am very envious! An older friend at school did me a tape of Script for a Jesters Tear when I was 12, and shortly afterwards, on request, taped me everything else he had by Marillion. Perfect music for a rock chick/goth teenager! And I still listen to it.

    I have to say I stopped buying Marillion after Fish left but a good friend of mine knows them only after Fish and says they are very good. I also never really followed Fish's solo stuff but feel inspired after your post to go and check some out.

    And I cannot believe you met Rory Gallagher, a thoroughly decent chap by all accounts and a fab blues man.

    It sounds like such a cool gig. By the way (god I should be on commission for this!) as a fellow prog rock fan I can strongly recommend Porcupine Tree! I am very biased but there are so many amazing influences that you can hear through their music including Genesis, Marillion and Floyd. And Steven Wilson (PT head honcho) is a big Marillion fan and I beleive produced one of their albums, post Fish unfortunately.

    By the way, I really liked the marzipan frogs!

  7. Hey coastkid - I hav high hopes that one day you may see the Marillion/ Fish light - it OUGHT to be in your genes if it is in mine, surely!

  8. Hi Al - many thanks as ever for your thoughts - marzipan? well, when Fish made the suggestion., Ithought, "You know what this needs? A calculation!" and it was quite easy, really, once I had the basic starting assumptions (Kate - you are a spoilsport!). It took me longer to find out how big the church is! You have to remember that Fish was a bit drunk, standing at the altar, when he has these thoughts - and he's a bit of a creative type! I'm glad I was able to inject a bit of arithmetic and geometry into the proceedings. (BTW, I'd NEVER say "Why not?" - there's always a better answer than that!). Cheers for now, SNB P.S. Geezabun!

  9. Hi Ellen - kind words, thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the gig! Bedankt! SNB

  10. Hi Dancin' - thanks for that, I really enjoy knowing that folk like reading my stuff! I have a batch of Porc Tree to listen to at some point from my friend Pete (my old gig partner) - 1st impressions favourable but I'll let you know! Cheers, SNB

  11. quote Scottish Nature Boy said...

    Hey coastkid - I hav high hopes that one day you may see the Marillion/ Fish light - it OUGHT to be in your genes if it is in mine, surely! quote

    already have a city cyling film to market square heroes soundtrack in the pipeline big bro....-:)


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