John Arnison became Marillion's manager in 1982. He helped the band get a record deal with EMI in August 1982, He subsequently managed them for 16 years through their most successful period with Fish and on through to the Steve Hogarth era. John is still working hard in music management. I would like to thank him for his side of the story of Marillion, John has been very busy with work but still took the time to share his memories with me and the fans. Thanks John.
Interview with John Arnison from January 2021.
MMM: Hello John, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, How did you get into music management? What inspired you to do so?
JOHN: Back in the early 70”s I was at Law college , I started running a rock disco night in a college bar , and started to book local bands , this led to me running a Rock night at the Saxon Tavern in South London and live shows at Thames Polytechnic in Greenwich , One of the bands I often booked ( Jeni Haans Lion ) called me asking me if I would be interested in working with them as personal manager , They had been offered a record deal with EMI and a major Management company wanted to take them on , but wanted them to have a day to day person , I went along to the meeting , on the wall was Gold discs for Status Quo and Rory Gallagher , they offered me the job and It started from there
MMM: What were your daily duties as a band manager and how have they changed over the years?
JOHN: The Manager runs the whole thing , when you start with a new Band its them and you , Back in the 80’s the first things you need is a Record Label, Live Agent , Its your job to oversee and make the final decisions , One year down the line we had Full road crew, press officers promo team /radio/tv International department at the record label , Accountants , lawyers etc
MMM: What are the difficulties in managing multiple artists from different genres?
JOIHN: To be honest I have never had more then 2/3 acts at any one time , I was given great advice by Status Quo’s Press officer that to have a career in management you must break an act , so that when you find one that you think you can help do this , concentrate all your time on them , Thats what happened with Marillion
MMM: Were you ever a musician yourself?
JOHN: No! just a DJ.
MMM: Can you tell us the story of how you first discovered Marillion and How did you sell yourself as the man to bring them success?
JOHN: It was one of those chance meetings I had finished a late meeting at CBS records in Manchester Square , and was walking back to the tube , I decided to pop into the Marquee Club for a drink , I saw a Press Officer I knew called Keith Goodwin , who came up and thanked me for coming along as he was working with this new band from Aylesbury , They had just started , I could hear them and to be honest I thought they sounded like Genesis , so I went in to watch and was very impressed. Not just the band , but also the fans who were all young teenagers ( some should not have been in the venue but back then they were not too worried about age )
Keith asked me if I would like to meet them , so we arranged a meeting in a pub in Earls Court , we agreed that I would start a trial period ( 3 months) which ended up as 16 years
MMM: You took over in August 1982 and almost immediately the band signed for EMI, Can you tell us how that came about so quickly and also the disastrous offer from Charisma?
JOHN: I had contacted EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley Clarke , he agreed to put the band in a studio for some Demos, The problem was that he used a studio in the garden of a friend of his who was not a producer , just the engineer The band had no real experience of actual recording at that time , so to be honest the demos were not that good , I took Hugh up to a show Nr Aylesbury and we agreed that we would not play the demo’s to his Boss ( head of A&R ) but get them all to see the band the next month when they were headlining the Marquee . This was 1982 the Punk era was over so I just said to the EMI team don’t just watch the band look at that audience its not all old Genesis fans , but real young Marillion Fans
They offered a deal on the spot . The Charisma offer was just nowhere near EMI Tony Stratton Smith was very upset However we did sign with Charisma Publishing after offered a much better deal ,
MMM: Did EMI understand the Progressive Rock element of the band would mean they were always going to be an album band, It is often mooted that EMI put pressure on the band to have hits, How true is this?
JOHN: As you know the first album went great as did the second , but unfortunately EMI thought they would take off in the USA which never really happened , so when we got to Misplaced Childhood EMI did say they were looking for a single that could also have a chance of radio play , There had been technically hits off both the first 2 albums , but not radio hits Hugh spoke to me and the producer Chris Kimsey , Chris called me from the studio and said he thought the band had written a piece for the album that he could turn into a radio track ,Hugh and I flew out to Berlin to meet him and the band , who after a while agreed to let Chris have a go .
Kayleigh was born
MMM: How important was breaking the USA to EMI and the band? Do you have any stories about the ups and downs in that market
JOHN: As I said EMI did think that it would take off in the USA as it had done in UK/Europe but it didn’t, in some ways it was frustrating as the band were now playing large concert halls across Europe but small clubs in the USA . I decided I needed help in the USA so we appointed Rod Smallwood as joint manager for North America , as he was managing Iron Maiden and was based in LA close to Capitol/EMI The record label did support the band’s tour and wanted them to stay in the USA for 6/9 months , However as Kayliegh was a massive hit right across Europe it was decided to concentrate on that Market
MMM: It has often been mooted that Fish and the band were offered a place at Live Aid? Can you tell us your side of that story?
JOHN: The band were the first reserve for Live aid , as Kayleigh was a current hit at the time , but all the acts asked to appear did so there was no room for Marillion
MMM: It would have been nice to have a film recording from the Misplaced Childhood tour, was this ever considered?
JOHN: You may know that the band did record a Live from Hammersmith on its first Script tour , Unfortunately it did not sell so EMI stopped filming live shows , We did approach TV companies but even after Kayleigh they said no as the band were not mainstream
MMM: Another story form this time was the band being offered the soundtrack to The Highlander movie, subsequently done by Queen, what do you remember about this offer and what stopped it happening?
JOHN: It was suggested ,but as soon as Queen Confirmed , its was taken off the agenda
MMM: With the release of Clutching at Straws the success continued and you pushed the band to play bigger venues like Wembley Arena? From a logistical point of view i fully understand that its impossible to do 10 nights at Hammersmith when you can do 2 or 3 at Wembley, What were everyones thoughts on playing bigger venues?
JOHN: To be honest the Promoters and Label wanted the band to move up to Arena’s earlier , It was our decision to play multiple nights in concert halls , as I and the band felt we didn’t want to move too quickly Looking back its funny because some of the band found it hard to get the vibe when playing 4/5 nights in the same venue usually the first and last nights were the best from their point of view
MMM: The winter CAS tour in 87 was a huge success, to take advantage of the success you immediately booked a second Spring 88 leg , I believe not everyone wanted to do this, some wanted a break, its often been said that the resulting fatigue made tempers fray and it contributed to the split, what's your take on this time within the band and the eventual split with Fish?
JOHN: This is a tough one as everything was going so well , but behind the scenes there was some issues. Fish did come to me with his thoughts about the future of the band , which without going into detail I did not agree with , he wanted to make changes there and then , I suggested that we finish the tour , the band should have a break and then discuss his thoughts with the rest of the band , which he did reluctantly agree too . The band went to The USA for some dates to help the US label try to get some momentum
Lots of things were going wrong on that leg I was kept up to date and went over for a few days to speak with Fish , who agreed to wait until the end of the tour
I then got a call from the band , saying they had had a letter from Fish telling them what he wanted to change ,, One of those was change of manager , I was then told by the band members of the personal issues that they had with Fish over the last couple of years. I was asked If I felt they could continue without Fish , because if If I did think it was possible they were happy to continue with me and Rod in the USA
MMM: Did you or EMI have doubts about the band continuing without Fish?
JOHN: EMI had a period of time before they needed to take up the options for both The band and Fish ,They were happy for the band to find a new singer and then demo new material . Nick Gatfield was head of A&R and he came down to the studio to hear how things were going and said 'Sounding Great lets go for it'
MMM: Were you at any of the subsequent auditions for a replacement?
JOHN: The band tried out a few , but the problem was they were all trying to be Fish , Then Dwayne Welch called about a demo he had heard from Steve Hogarth , At first it was about his lyric’s , We sent it over to the band who said straight away lets get him in to co write , During that session the band decided that Steve could be the one , I arranged a lunch meeting with him and explained the business end of things and what I believed the future for the band with him could be . The rest is history
MMM: The addition of Hogarth split the fans and many gave up, personally I think he was a great addition as subsequent work has proved but i understand why many didn't get it. The band continued to have minor chart success with singles, how did you perceive the post Fish era success
JOHN: Steve did not stand in for Fish , The Hogarth Marillion always had to stand up for itself , I know the singles didn’t come , but the band had and still does have a loyal following , and its great that they have proved you can be a successful band without hit singles
MMM: The end of the EMI era and your split from the band, what are your memories of this time?
JOHN: Its funny that they were dropped by EMI because an album only sold 250,000 , Today that would be No 1 all over the world, but thats what happened, EMI decided they would rather invest in a new artistes rather than pay Marillion the advice due. As it happened it was the best thing that happened as it put the bands future in their own hands , They had a great fan base that had stayed loyal so we went direct to fans to help and it worked then and is still working today
MMM: Looking back at your time with the band what are your biggest regrets and proudest achievements?
JOHN: Achievements ; Selling out Hammersmith before Marillion released its first album ( 3,600 x 2 nights)
Breaking the band across Europe ( Germany sales larger than UK)
Proving that Steve Hogarth could follow Fish and the band to still be selling out major Venues today
Regrets Not many
MMM: Do you still follow the bands career?
JOHN: Yes I am still in touch with the guys , Lucy has done a great job she has taken over from me as the longest manager
MMM: I see you are managing Billy Ocean at the moment, he's been on TV a lot in the last few months so you're still working hard, but with Covid affecting the music world, are you as busy as ever for different reasons?
JOHN: Yes its been very difficult this last year , but I love this business , especially the live side , nothing better than seeing a crowd singing along and having a great time at a live show ,Looking forward to this getting back to normal
MMM: With the state of the music business today, very little money from records, streaming etc, would you if you had the chance do it all again if you had to start again today?
JOHN: Its so different now , so hard for new acts to get the funding to give it a shot , But I do believe music is part of all our lives , It will not go away , just got to keep looking at new ways to get new artistes started on the long road