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23 January, 2004

Jumping The Shark

I don't know the origin of the phrase, but it defines the point where a series (TV, novels, films) peaks, the episode after which it's all downhill into mediocrity or self-parody.  As Tim shows, the concept also applies to album releases and musicians' careers.

I tried this once before, at a 'prog' discussion group, and the topic degenerated into a flame war. Though I obviously welcome comments and debate, please don't think I'm gratuitously criticising your favourite band. If it's mentioned here, it's probably one of my favourite bands too. I'm merely acknowledging that its heyday has passed.

In no particular order:

'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'
For me, the most obvious example of a shark jump. Unlike Tim, the lyrics of 'prog' bands do matter to me, and with the departure of Peter Gabriel, the band's lyrics swiftly degenerated into sentimental mush. Some would place the shark jump later, with the departure of Steve Hackett, but 1976's 'A Trick Of The Tail' and 'Wind & Wuthering' just don't seem to have 'it' (no pun intended), partly because I dislike Phil Collins' voice, but more fundamentally because the band members seemed to shift roles slightly, which affected the nature of their writing and playing.
As I explained above, I'm not particularly criticising the later albums, and all credit to the band for reinventing themselves at the end of the seventies to finally gain pop success, but that material just isn't to my taste. In terms of success, 'We Can't Dance' (1991) is the shark-jump album, as 'Calling All Stations' (1997) was definitely a step too far.

Jethro Tull
'Roots To Branches' (1995)

I've given a fuller explanation of my disaffection with Tull in an earlier posting, but to summarise, I feel this was the last album from an energetic, progressing rock band, and everything that has followed has merely kept the machine idling - still running, but in neutral.

'Bridge Across Forever' (2001)

Not a jump; they were pushed. With the resignation of Neal Morse, it was decided the band wouldn't continue, but everything up to that point had been great, so I wouldn't really say Transatlantic jumped the shark at all. Even the 'posthumous' DVD and live CD album, 'Live In Europe' (released 2003, but a 2001 concert) was excellent, both musically and in its physical presentation.

Mike Oldfield
'Guitars' (1999)

This is difficult to judge. In terms of my personal taste, Oldfield has been tap-dancing on sharks since his first album, in 1973! I like some albums immensely, rarely bother with others, only listen to 1-2 tracks from others, and dislike the remainder, but there's no chronological order to that. Over-simplifying, I tend to prefer the fully-instrumental albums.
In terms of creativity, the decision is complicated by the fact that some of Oldfield's best work has been reworking of earlier pieces, which I don't necessarily regard as a fault.
Hence, I've selected 'Guitars' as the most recent album that I liked and and also felt was significantly creative. I did like 'The Millennium Bell' (1999), though it was a little derivative, and 'Tr3s Lunas' (2002)... wasn't good.
However, on past record, Oldfield's next release might be better, so the shark might still be waiting.

Pink Floyd
'The Final Cut' (1982)

Arguably the first Roger Waters solo album, but let's not get into that argument....
For me, the essence of Pink Floyd was wonderful music inextricably linked to the venomous lyrics of Roger Waters; whatever the personal issues, I don't think Pink Floyd were the same without him. I quite liked two tracks from 'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (1987) - 'Sorrow' and 'Learning To Fly' - but I felt the album versions of these two were a little insipid (much better live) and the album as a whole was directionless, failing to hold my attention. The same applies to their final album, 'The Division Bell' (1994): 'High Hopes' was one of the all-time best Pink Floyd songs, but the rest of the album simply lacked the essential spark.

'Sunset On Empires' (1997)

I've always been in two minds about Fish's writing: his 'aggressive rock' songs really grab me, but they've always been interspersed by ballads, which I like less. His writing is very emotional, and I'm not particularly criticising either variety; it's just that the songs expressing bitterness and anger tend to manifest as high-energy, bouncy, visceral rock, which I find more entertaining than gentle, keyboard-led songs expressing wistful regret. On the post-1997 albums, the balance tipped a little too far for me towards the gentler, introspective side. The extended suite of 'Plague Of Ghosts' on 'Raingods With Zippos' (2000) was good, but I rarely play the rest of the album. I play even less of 'Fellini Days'. I haven't got round to sampling 'Field Of Crows' (2003) yet; the first time I haven't been willing to buy a Fish album 'blind', which has to be an indicator that he's probably lost me.

[Update 14/2/04: Wrong! See my review of 'Field Of Crows'.]

'This Strange Engine' (1997)

Many casual, and some not-so-casual fans cite this as a low point redeemed by Marillion's last gasp of 'prog', the title track. However, I like the rest of the album rather more than 'This Strange Engine' itself (which I like too), making this the last Marillion album (to date) from which I liked virtually every song. The subsequent three albums displayed a slight change of direction, most obviously in guitar sound, the result being somewhat patchy - I do like many songs from these albums, but far from all; there has been a slip towards mediocre 'indie pop'.

[Update 14/4/04: Wrong again! See my review of 'Marbles'. Marillion are back. A little different, but back on-form.]


Marillion and Fish, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

Posted by Yorkshire Soul at January 28, 2004 12:40 PM

No! I *really* don't agree. Though I do like the first four Marillion albums, I drastically prefer Marillion post-Fish and Fish's solo albums.

The youthful pretention of Fish's early lyrics was amusing, and the playing was great, but the lyrics are a bit cringeworthy now, and his delivery has improved with age. The Eighties production values weren't wonderful, and I find 'Fugazi' a particularly disappointing album. The material is fine, but I always prefer to listen to live recordings, very rarely the studio album.

On the 1997 tour, Fish performed a 20-min medley of Marillion and solo songs: Assassing/Credo/Tongues/Fugazi/White Feather; much richer, 'heavier' arrangements that really brought them to life.

Oversimplifying, my favourite Fish songs are rather bombastic, and he carries that off well, whereas I look for something different from Marillion. Their 'water'-themed songs work extremely well with h's (Steve Hogarth's) voice, and are high points for me.

Posted by NRT at January 28, 2004 01:53 PM

FYI: the term "jumping the shark" originates from an episode of Happy Days in which Arthur 'Fonzi' Fonzerelli actually did jump a shark (on waterskis; I've quite forgotten why he was doing such a stunt, but those familiar with sitcoms, and the character of Fonzi especially, can well imagine it...). It is widely felt that the series went into decline after this episode, hence the terminology....

Posted by Shannon Malcolm at June 16, 2004 09:49 PM
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