From 1977 to 1981, "Johnny" Helmer was a guitarist and vocalist in the Brighton-based ska punk band The Piranhas, best known for their 1980 top ten hit "Tom Hark". Helmer formed The Piranhas with 'Boring' Bob Grover while attending Sussex University, where he obtained a degree in English Literature. After The Piranhas split in 1981, Helmer formed a "cabaret busking group" called Pookiesnackenburger with Nick Dwyer, formerly with Nicky and the Dots. They had a Spinal Tap-like series on Channel Four TV and also appeared in a Heineken commercial. Pookiesnackenburger finally evolved into the dance troupe Stomp.
After the departure of Fish (1988), whose complex lyrics had been a signature feature of Marillion's music, the band was uncertain whether any successor would be able to write lyrics on a similar level. EMI put them in touch with Helmer at this point. They eventually found Steve Hogarth, who already had experience in writing lyrics for his previous project How We Live. Still, Helmer went on to contribute to Marillion albums over the next decade. He also wrote most lyrics for Carnival of Souls, a 1996 album by Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery's side project The Wishing Tree.