Kayleigh – How Marillion added a brand new girls’ name into the cultural lexicon

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Here’s a funny bit of trivia for you. Prior to Marillion releasing ‘Kayleigh’ as a single from their third studio album, ‘Misplaced Childhood’ in 1985, Kayleigh was almost unheard of as a girls’ name in the UK, where the band come from.

Pretty much nobody ever chose it (or even thought of it) as something to call one of their kids. But then, the single came out and was a smash hit all over the world – #2 in the UK, top 10 in a few European countries, even an entry in the US Billboard 100.

All of a sudden, young girls named Kayleigh started to pop up everywhere. The name made it into the top 30 and had kids of their own.

How’s that for a lasting cultural legacy? The band have made a killing financially from the song’s success over the years,  indeed, according to keyboard player Mark Kelly, it’s

‘part of the reason I’ve never had a proper job and I’ve been able to make a living from music for the past 32 years’

Mark Kelly (Marillion Keyboard Player)

But The Hawk suspects they find the cultural tsunami they set off even more satisfying, thanks to its sheer novelty value. So what’s the story behind ‘Kayleigh’ – the lyric that launched thousands of baby showers? Let’s find out.


Marillion’s lead singer, Fish, has always considered himself something of a poet. Well he called himself Fish for a start. For obvious reasons, Derek Dick (his real name) decided that if he was going to embark on a singing career, a stage name was essential, and borrowed Fish from the landlord of a pub he spent some time in as a young man. The guy spent too much time in the bath, geddit??

So, here’s a guy with a very literary mind. He joined Marillion in 1981, and with his lyrics and voice (often described as a mashup of Roger Daltrey (The Who) and Peter Gabriel (Genesis), success followed, in the form of a couple of decent early albums, ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ (1983) and ‘Fugazi’ (1984). These offerings got them a decent following, especially at home in the UK, helped by solid singles like ‘Punch and Judy.’

Concept of Doom?

So when they got together to write and record album number 3, ‘Misplaced Childhood’ confidence was running high. Maybe even a little too high. The band were arguably setting themselves up for a fall – this album was to by a concept album, and an autobiographical concept album at that. Even for a prog rock band, that might have seemed a little wanky. A little up yourself. A little, ‘look how pretty we write’, enough to turn the fans off.

The record company, EMI was ambivalent – where would the singles come from?

Suicide City

But Fish wasn’t having any of it. ‘Misplaced Childhood’ was going to be the BIG ONE as far as he was concerned. They decamped to Berlin where they’d make the record, a band on a mission. Keep in mind that Berlin in 1985 wasn’t the modern, cosmopolitan city it is today. This was the last hurrah of the cold war – West Berlin was an island in a sea of communism, surrounded by fences and walls and barbed wire and soldiers armed to the teeth.

You couldn’t just hop in the car for a drive out to the country, or visit friends in the next city. Residents sometimes went a little stir crazy, and it earned the nickname of Suicide City in some quarters. So an odd choice, you might think, to get creative. And indeed, the band had a love / hate relationship with the place whilst they were there. But it did at least have a ready supply of booze, drugs brothels and nightclubs, plus the chance to work without record company suits interfering too much in the process.

(Fish apparently came up with the concept for the album whilst high on LSD – some kid dressed as a soldier came into his field of vision, and the drugs fired his imagination).

So the choice was made, Rolling Stones alumnus Chris Kimsey came in to produce (he of the need to inject heart, soul and feeling into the music) and the stage was set.

Lost Childhood

‘Misplaced Childhood’ s loosely based on the childhood of Fish himself. It doesn’t tell a continuous story so much as explore some common childhood themes – lost love, lost childhood innocence, sudden success – things like that. Which brings us to the theme of this blog – ‘Kayleigh’ – which of course is the part about lost love.

So, here’s the burning question – did Fish ever really have a girlfriend called Kayleigh who represented the inspiration for the song? Not quite. There was an ex named Kay at one point. And her middle name was Lee. So that’s where the title came from – but in reality, Fish had intended the song to cover a number of failed relationships he’d had with different women as a young man.

Saying Sorry

By his own admission, Fish, was selfish, single minded, career oriented. He wanted success, and inevitably, that put a strain on his personal life, and his ability to hold down relationships. So the song was an apologetic reaching out to some of those people, expressing regret at how things worked out (or not, as the case may be).

And Fish certainly reached deep into himself as a lyricist to conjure up that sentimental picture of lost love – some of the lines are very evocative.

‘Dawn escapes from moon washed college halls’ refers to a girlfriend who studied at the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, Scotland. She lived in a college room, and sometimes Fish would visit and whisk her away. ‘ The cherry blossom in the market square’ brought to life the cherry trees in the same town.

Or there’s ‘ Dancing in stilettoes in the snow’, when Fish and a girl did exactly that – danced impromptu in the snow after a night out.

Carved in Stone

Scottish Borders Council have certainly made the most of the association with Galashiels – in 2012 they decided to inscribe some of the lyrics into paving stones in the town square. Unfortunately the cherry trees are now long gone, removed because of disease, but the thought was there. And besides, with songs like this, the sentiment is more important than the physical, which was by definition been long lost.

The song is mostly about the lyrics, but not entirely. The music it not especially complicated – guitarist Steve Rothery was just noodling about with a chorus pedal when he came up with the main riff. And the solo is more of a dreamy quality that anything technically spectacular. But the whole thing comes together as a package, and it just works.

The video is kinda cool as well. ‘Kayleigh’ is played by one Tamara Nowy, who Fish met when she was working as a nightclub hostess in Berlin and eventually married. She also reminds The Hawk a bit of Krystle Carrington from legendary Classic Heavy Metal era TV soap Dynasty. What do you reckon? Add some shoulder pads and a fake fur wrap and they’re virtually twins!

Krystle Carrington
marillion kayleigh

Beginning of the End

It was a bit surprising at the time, but ‘Misplaced Childhood’ and ‘Kayleigh’ represented the career high point for Marillion and Fish. Here they were etching a new girls’ name into the lexicon and with a song that would be a lifetime nest egg for them. Fish had been offered a part in some movie called ‘Highlander’, ready to reach beyond the rock genre and pull in a new set of fans. (He ended up turning down the part because of band touring commitments).

So the future looked rosy, but the wheels fell off pretty quickly. Fish ended up walking out on Marillion in 1988 after a dispute with their management over their heavy touring schedule. A proposal to tour the US turned out to be the last straw.

And neither side hit the heights after that. Fish started a solo career, but a legal dispute with EMI seemed to leave him all out of inspiration, feeling bitter about the industry. He experimented with styles, but never really ‘found himself’ as a solo performer.

As for Marillion, they found a new singer and carried on, by with a more modern direction that alienated some of the older fans. It’s often been said (by said new singer among others) that they’d have been better off changing their name and starting afresh.

Nevertheless, they carried on, and are still writing and performing to this day. And after disputes with Fish when the split first happened, things are friendly between the parties again, which is nice. In fact, they have even all performed together in a reunion of sorts, though under the banner of the Low Fat Yoghurts. An official re-union appears not to be on the cards.

Live for the Day

Which just goes to demonstrate that you’ve got to enjoy the big moments while they last, because when it comes to success, it’s a case of easy come, easy go. However, now that too many of us Classic Heavy Metal fans are getting long in the tooth, The Hawk figured that a song that even back in the day was written to appeal exclusively to nostalgia was well worth a place in the Classic Metal Hawk cannon.

Here’s Marillion and Fish with his lost love / future wife, performing ‘Kayleigh.’ Enjoy it.

Would you choose Kayleigh as the name for one of your own kids? Did Fish do a good thing by bequeathing it to us? Tamara Nowy or Krystle Carrington? C’mon, spill in the comments below.

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