Genesis – when Prog ruled the Earth


OUR destination this week is the Land of Prog – a magical country whose population includes a woman in evening gown with the head of a fox, blood-drinking snakes and a wizened sex-mad old man living in a musical box. Your guides are the vocalist Mr Peter Gabriel and his young chums Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Phil Collins; otherwise known as Genesis.

In the early seventies Genesis were at the heart of the progressive rock scene, with brilliantly played, imaginative songs acted out on stage by Gabriel in a variety of bizarre costumes.

We join them for their third LP, Nursery Cryme, released in 1971, which marks the arrival in the band of drummer Collins and guitarist Hackett. The others had met while pupils at Charterhouse, the Surrey public school, which accounts for the very English feel of their music. All the members were in their early twenties.

The album is notable mainly for the first track, The Musical Box, a macabre story about two children in a Victorian country house which provides the cover art. While playing croquet, a girl named Cynthia accidentally decapitates her young friend Henry. His spirit takes refuge in a musical box. When Cynthia opens it, the tune of Old King Cole plays and Henry experiences a lifetime’s worth of sexual desire as he ages rapidly, turning into a little old man. As he begs Cynthia for intimacy, the noise alerts a nurse who throws the box at him, destroying his spirit.

This remarkable live performance shows Gabriel at his most theatrical, white-faced and clad in black Marcel Marceau-style, with a tonsure at the front rather than the rear of his head. He disappears during an instrumental passage and returns in creepy mask as the aged Henry, lewdly gyrating as he demands sex from Cynthia. The song became one of the staples of the band’s live performances, often as an encore, and was a huge favourite with the fans. It contains possibly the worst Genesis line ever – ‘the clock . . . tick tock’.

The album, released on the Charisma label, made little impact on the British charts but went down a storm in Italy, where it reached number 4. An Italian tour drew huge, adoring crowds.

In August and September 1972, the band recorded Foxtrot, which when it was played to Charisma owner Tony Stratton-Smith prompted him to declare: ‘This is the one that makes their career.’ He later told Mojo magazine: ‘I had to wipe a tear from my eye. Everything that one had believed about the band had come through.’

Track one is Watcher of the Skies, whose title is taken from On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, by my favourite poet John Keats, the last line of which has always moved me strangely:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keyboardist Banks and bass player Rutherford wrote the music during the Italian tour. It is ‘a sort of sci-fi fantasy’ which imagines an empty Earth seen by an alien visitor and is introduced by a solo on a second-hand Mellotron with one previous careful owner – King Crimson. This song became another staple of the band’s live act, with Gabriel of course clad in suitable wacky costume.

It is followed by Time Table, a sweet and melodic tale about a piece of furniture imbued with history.

Next, another Genesis classic, Get ’Em Out By Friday, about rapacious businessmen forcing tenants out of property they wish to redevelop. It ends with ‘humanoid’ height being limited to 4ft so that more people can be crammed into tower blocks. Rutherford opined that the lyrics were the best that Gabriel had ever written. Track four is Can-Utility and the Coastliners, based on the legend of King Canute. And that’s only side one.

After a short guitar instrumental comes the epic 23-minute song suite Supper’s Ready. Tony Banks would later say that the final two parts, Apocalypse in 9/8 and As Sure as Eggs is Eggs, were the finest compositions the band produced.

Reviewing Foxtrot for the music paper Sounds, Jerry Gilbert described it as ‘almost the perfect album’. It reached Number 12 in the UK LP charts and Number 1 in Italy. Prog evidently goes down a treat with pasta.

In July 1973 came the budget-priced Genesis Live, including the concert favourite The Knife from their second album Trespass. This went to Number 9 in the UK and kept the fans satisfied while the next studio LP was recorded over the summer and released in October.

Selling England by the Pound is a lament for lost English values in the face of invading American culture. Track one is Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, developed from a series of piano pieces written by Gabriel, with lyrics which pointedly refer to Green Shield stamps and other consumerist details. Next comes I Know What I Like, which includes some of my favourite Genesis lines such as the opening: ‘There’s always been Ethel’; ‘There’s a future for you in the fire escape trade’; and ‘Me, I’m just a lawnmower; you can tell me by the way I walk’. Released as a single, it fell just short of the Top 20 after the band rejected an offer to play it on Top of the Pops.

The piano-heavy Firth of Fifth, mainly conceived by Banks, had been rejected by the band when he suggested it for Foxtrot. It is followed by More Fool Me, with Collins on vocals as a foretaste of the band’s later work.

There are two epics still to come. The Battle of Epping Forest is a comic account of a clash between rival East End crime gangs, while The Cinema Show, apparently inspired partly by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, comes in two parts. In the first, Gabriel and Collins harmonise on vocals to a 12-string guitar accompaniment. The piece concludes with a lengthy passage from Banks on the ARP Pro Soloist. Final track is a continuation of Moonlit Knight, Aisle of Plenty, with its supermarket references – ‘Easy love, there’s the safe way home. Thankful for her fine fair discount, Tess co-operates’.

Selling England might fall slightly short of Foxtrot standards but is still a valuable addition to the Genesis canon. It reached number 3 in the UK album charts.

With the band spending a great deal of time together recording and touring, there were inevitable personality clashes, particularly between Gabriel and the rest. In 1974 they started work on their sixth album, which they decided should be a double to give them more scope for improvisation. Rutherford suggested it be based on the fantasy novel The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but Gabriel put the kibosh on that idea saying that ‘prancing around in fairyland was rapidly becoming obsolete’. A shrewd observation given the punk and new wave revolution which was shortly to come. He instead provided the story of Rael, a Puerto Rican youth in New York, which is much grittier but still, this being Genesis, not without its surreal side as he encounters supernatural creatures on his journey through the bowels of the city.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, according to Gabriel, has influences including West Side Story, Pilgrim’s Progress, Carl Jung and the weird Mexican Western movie El Topo. The strong English element of earlier albums is replaced by repeated references to American culture. And the music is given a sideways twist by the involvement of Brian Eno, who was also at Island Studios working on his second solo album Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy). His contribution to the Genesis cause is billed as ‘Enossification’. More of him in future columns.

The opening title track sets the scene, with its references to the Drifters’ hit On Broadway. The riffy Back in NYC introduces a new, more rock and roll side to the band with great vocals by Gabriel and this is followed by the charming Counting Out Time, about the difficulties of learning lovemaking techniques from a book.

Next comes the creepy yet lovely The Carpet Crawlers, in which Rael finds himself trapped in a corridor filled with kneeling people. Perhaps the best passage of the album begins with Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist, followed by The Lamia with its gore-glugging lady reptiles, and the mournful Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats.

The Colony of Slippermen gives Gabriel the opportunity for his most elaborate stage costume of all, as a hideous creature covered in bumps and boils with the ability to inflate its own testicles. Here is a live performance.

The album concludes ambiguously with In the Rapids and It, leaving us unaware whether Rael survives his adventure.

The Lamb, released in November 1974, reached Number 10 in the UK albums chart and went gold the following year. To promote it the band went on a 102-date tour across the US and Europe, during which Gabriel told his colleagues he would be leaving when it was over. I saw them on April 28, 1975, at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. They played the album in its entirety and a great spectacle it was, although the concert ended in a letdown. Reviews of previous gigs had reported two encores – the old favourites The Musical Boxand Watcher of the Skies, which indeed were on the set list, so on the completion of the former the crowd were expecting more. It never came, presumably because the band were having a barney in the dressing room. I will never forget the sight of the Palace’s sprung balcony rising and falling by a good six inches as the fans stamped their feet while yelling for one last song. Eventually the house lights went up and we all trudged home in disappointment, which was a shame because the Lamb show was genuinely inventive.

At the end of the tour Gabriel kept to his vow and announced his departure publicly in an open letter in which he said he was disillusioned with the music industry and wished to spend more time with his family. Banks had a different explanation: ‘Pete was getting too big for the group. He was being portrayed as if he was “the man” and it really wasn’t like that. It was a very difficult thing to accommodate. So it was actually a bit of a relief.’

Relief it might have been for Banks and Co, but for fans such as myself it was a catastrophe. I for one doubted that the band could continue but of course they went on to far greater fame with Collins on vocals and a much poppier approach, while Gabriel ploughed his own successful solo furrow. By the early Eighties Genesis were selling singles and albums hand over fist. More power to their elbow, (that’s enough arm sections – ed) but for me the prog years will always be their golden age. OK, Gabriel’s antics might now seem very dated and am-dram, but the music is sublime.

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