Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 1: the Gabriel years

About a year ago, for reasons that escaped me then and still do now, I found myself writing a whole-career retrospective review of Whitesnake’s albums. They’re a band that I like, but who I never really loved. But for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to Genesis, and I do love them.

Genesis, classic line-up (1975). Left to right: Phil Collins (drums), Steve Hackett (guitars), Tony Banks (keyboards, above), Mike Rutherford (bass, below), Peter Gabriel (vocals)

Since 15 albums is a lot to cover in a single post, I’ll be breaking this one up into two: the present post on the first six albums, with Peter Gabriel as lead singer; and a follow-up on the last nine, with Phil Collins singing.

Like most long-lived bands, Genesis went through quite a few line-up changes along the way. They started out as schoolboys: a band that formed at Charterhouse School, an up-market fee-paying school that was one of the first seven English public schools (a term that means the exact opposite to what it means in the USA). The initial lineup of five included three of the main players in Genesis history: Tony Banks on keyboards, Mike Rutherford playing bass and guitars, and singer Peter Gabriel. The quintet was rounded out by lead guitarist Anthony Phillips, who was to record the band’s first two albums, and drummer Chris Stewart, who would hardly last even to the first, though he did record their first single.

While they were still at school, Genesis were discovered, somewhat improbably, by impresario Jonathan King — this of course being long before his sexual assault convictions. He arranged for them to record the single The Silent Sun; then, having had Stewart replaced by John Silver, for the resulting quintet to record a second single and a debut album.

1. From Genesis to Revelation (1969)

And this is that debut album — mostly available, these days, in a form that includes both of the pre-album singles and their B-sides as bonus material. It tends to be dismissed as juvenilia, which of course it was — Gabriel, Banks and Rutherford were all in their teens when it was recorded and released. But I think it stands up pretty well, actually. It’s nothing like what we’d now recognise as prog rock — a genre for which Genesis would go on to become one of the defining bands. Instead, most of the tracks have a sort of folk-psychedelia quality to them. Much of it is not particularly striking, but there’s a magnetic, haunting, urgent quality to Gabriel’s vocals that gives a hint of what was to follow.

Among the better tracks for me are Am I Very Wrong? (excellent title), which slips cleanly between an introspective verse and a much warmer chorus with indistinct vocals; and the single B-side One Eyed Hound, which is perhaps the place that Gabriel comes close to letting loose.

All in all, I would call this dispensable, but pleasant. But in terms of Genesis as we think of them, it can only be classified as a false start.

2. Trespass (1970)

And then, wham, suddenly this happened. From the very first notes — Gabriel’s unaccompanied line “Looking for someone” on the track of the same name — everything is bolder, more distinctive, more full of character. Partly this is down to the production, but I think it’s more to do with the maturity and confidence of the musicians. John Silver had moved on, replaced by Genesis’s third drummer, John Mayhew, and certainly there’s a lot more variation in the percussion work here. But perhaps the biggest single area of growth is in the arrangements. While most of the songs on From Genesis to Revelation were trudges that retained a folky acoustic-guitar strum throughout, here Antony Phillips spreads his wings and becomes far more adventurous, with lines that comment on the song as well as textures that underlie it.

The songs themselves are also a lot more complex, lending themselves to textural variation: Phillips’ much-improved playing works with Banks’s wider range of keyboard sounds (where the first album had been mainly restricted to piano) and Gabriel’s occasional flute. He was never a particularly good flautist, but the presence of the instrument lends Genesis a breadth and warmth that few other bands could match, even at this early stage.

The album closer, The Knife, is seen as the big success here, and it remained in Genesis’s live set for decades. It certainly rocks harder than anything else on the album, having almost a proto-punk vibe to it. But for my money the adventurous and exploratory quality of some of the earlier tracks is more rewarding — especially the opener and the unappealingly titled Stagnation.

3. Nursery Cryme (1971)

If Trespass was a big step step forward, its follow-up, Nursery Cryme, was a quantum leap. Guitarist Anthony Phillips would have been within his rights to felt a bit peeved that he was replaced after having stepped up so impressively on Trespass, but he could really have no complaints about his replacement. In came Steve Hackett, bringing his distinctively angular playing style; and Phil Collins came in as the new drummer, replacing John Mayhew. Now the classic line-up was in place:

  • Tony Banks — keyboards
  • Phil Collins — drums
  • Peter Gabriel — vocals
  • Steve Hackett — guitar
  • Mike Rutherford — bass

They would go on to produce a string of four stone-cold classic albums, of which Nursery Cryme was the first. Its opening track, The Musical Box, is a sort of manifesto for everything the band would be during that period: adventurous, cryptic, dynamic, allusive, distinctively English. From its delicate 12-string guitar opening to the frenzied climax, it tells or at least hints at a macabre story of one child killing another, then being haunted by his spirit in the guise of an old man. Does it all make sense? Not necessarily. Does it work? Absolutely, yes.

The contrast of the second song could hardly be more complete: For Absent Friends is a short, self-contained guitar-and-vocal piece that’s lovely in its own way: an economical and surprisingly compassionate sketch of two widowers going about their daily lives. It reminds me of nothing so much as Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends, and I can’t help wondering whether that was a conscious influence. Side one closes with The Return of the Giant Hogweed, a riotous tumble of prog power and theatricality, and really you can forgive the band if side two doesn’t quite reach the same heights.

This album is where proper Genesis emerged, establishing a blueprint that the band was to build on and improve over the next three albums. The songs were consistently interesting, combining Hackett’s distinctive and innovative guitar lines, busy and creative keyboard work from Banks, and Gabriel’s always idiosyncratic vocals. And that’s not to underplay the contributions of the rhythm section, Collins and Rutherford, who both played with a freedom not usually associated with their instruments.

4. Foxtrot (1972)

Here, by many accounts, Genesis hit their peak. In a sense, Foxtrot is not exactly better than Nursery Cryme; but it’s more consistent. The high-points are on a par with, say, The Return of the Giant Hogweed; but there’s nothing but highlights.

Genesis have always had a knack for strong album openings, and Watcher of the Skies is certainly a worthy successor to Looking for Someone and The Musical Box. It floats in on a rich fog of ominous mellotron chords before the bass and drums come creeping in, building to a roar, and one of Gabriel’s most curious vocals retells the story of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End from the perspective of the aliens. The whole thing is strikingly powerful and thought-provoking at the same time. It must have been an amazing live experience.

Get ‘Em Out By Friday is perhaps the best of the little musical playlets that Genesis included on many of their albums (Harold the Barrel last time out, The Battle of Epping Forest on the next album, and various others during the Phil Collins era to follow.) What we have here is a song on the most unpromising premise, that of unscrupulous property developers coercing long-term residents to leave their rental homes. Amazingly, it works as a drama, with characters who you can relate to — and then it takes a strange and surreal turn in the final verse, to cap off the whole thing.

Of course, Supper’s Ready gets all the attention on this album, and rightly so. Filling almost all of side 2, its 23 minutes were at that time a whole new level of epic — though modern prog bands routinely outlast it now. But the thing is, it really uses all of those 23 minutes. Nothing is dragged out: the song just keeps on and on happening. It’s worth all its reputation and more. Still, I can’t help lamenting that, in its shadow, the side-one closer Can-Utility and the Coastliners, gets overlooked. In less than six minutes, it covers a lot of musical ground with its re-telling of the King Canute story, going through a huge range of styles and emotional affects. A neglected masterpiece.

There is, rightly, always debate about which is the best Genesis album: I think there are maybe five legitimate contenders, and I could be persuaded in any of those directions on a given day. But no such discussion ever takes place without Foxtrot being among the candidates. By this stage the five principals were fully integrated into a cohesive and innovative unit, and crucially, seemed to be still having fun together. That quality comes through in the music, and makes the album fun to listen to.

5. Selling England by the Pound (1973)

And one year on, another strong candidate for the title of Greatest Genesis Album. The nostalgic national politics of Selling England By The Pound have become lot less appealing in the Brexit era, but that perspective nevertheless gives the album a coherent unity, something that Foxtrot perhaps lacks. It feels like a single artistic statement rather than an anthology.

Certainly it’s another incredibly strong opening: Dancing with the Moonlit Knight opens with Gabriel’s voice alone, unaccompanied and bold. The rest of the band slip in one by one, constructing a soundscape that is unmistakably Genesis. Moonlit Knight builds to a frenzy before winding down with a sense of dismay or resignation, an unusual emotional trajectory that contributes to its distinctive character. It’s a fine example of a song that could really not have been by anyone else.

After I Know What I Like, to my mind a rather dispensable single, we come to one of the keystone Genesis Tracks: Firth of Fifth. It’s hard to overstate just how brilliantly this is put together: the opening pseudo-classical piano solo, the monolithic verses, Gabriel’s haunting flute theme, Hackett’s development of that theme on guitar, and the whole band’s triumphal return to the theme of the opening solo. The song is legitimately epic, and just about perfect — at least, if you can overlook the rather silly words.

The closing trio of songs is just as good: After the Ordeal runs straight into Cinema Show, which in turn runs into Aisle of Plenty, the album closer which reprises parts of the opener. Really, the three songs needs to be listened to as seventeen-minute unit rather than as individual tracks.

All in all, Selling England works superbly: even lesser tracks like More Fool Me work well in context, breaking up the territory and preventing the album from becoming mired in lengthy instrumental passages. I’ve found myself listening through it five times as I’ve been preparing this post — it just keeps drawing me in.

6. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

By 1974, tensions within the band were high. Peter Gabriel’s marriage was struggling, and he was becoming increasingly isolated, both socially and musically from the other four members. He worked alone much of the time: Banks, Collins, Hackett and Rutherford writing music, and Gabriel providing obscure, sidelong lyrics that supposedly told a story, but much of the time made little or no sense.

None of this is in the recipe for a great album: but a great album is what Genesis produced, nevertheless. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a double, featuring a challenging total of 23 tracks, ostensibly telling the story of a New York street kid called Rael who is transported into a surreal world and travels through it in the hope of getting home. To call the story episodic would be kind: in truth, it’s quite incoherent, and almost all of the episodes could appear in any order with no loss of narrative integrity. What makes it work is the sheer musicality of it all, and the vividness of Gabriel’s disjointed imagery.

It’s difficult to pick representative tracks from an album so sprawling — especially as many of them fade into and out of each other, so that individual songs don’t stand alone. But we might consider, for example, the half-understood nightmare that is The Carpet Crawlers, the elegant personification of death in Anyway, or the hallucinogenic narrative of The Colony of Slippermen. Whatever reservations there might be about how much sense it all makes, these songs and others on the album convey a compelling atmosphere. And that, perhaps, is where the real value of The Lamb is found: not in any individual song, but in the ominous sense of a world where the very randomness of events has a remorseless logic to it.

All in all, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is another genuine contender when people discuss which was the greatest Genesis album. Part of the reason is simply that is contains so much music — twice as much as their other albums. Its detractors, conversely, might point to a sense that we are no longer hearing so much an integrated band as a group of musicians collaborating with a singer-lyricist. And, to be fair, there does seem to be a sense of distance about the Lamb — though who can say whether that’s to do with the band tearing apart, or Rael’s alienation? Even if it was rooted in the former, it informs the latter, making the album all the stronger.

Part way through the tour to promote the Lamb, Gabriel had had enough. He felt constricted by the band format, never free to pursue his own ideas, always having to be on the road. He told his bandmates that he’d leave when the tour ended, and was as good as his word.

Most people assumed that would be the end of the band: you can’t have Genesis without Peter Gabriel, can you? The other four members had other ideas, and auditioned dozens of potential successors. None of them worked out, until it occurred to someone that Phil Collins could do the job. After all, he’d already been Gabriel’s backing singer, and had sung lead on two earlier songs (For Absent Friends and More Fool Me). As if to seal the deal, Collins’ voice more than a little resembled Gabriel’s distinctive rasp. So the deal was made, and Genesis continued as a four-piece.

More about that next time.

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7 responses to “Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 1: the Gabriel years

  1. As you might recall from previous correspondence, I am very, very much a fan of the four Gabriel solo albums but very, very mixed over his Genesis era. However…

    ” Does it all make sense? Not necessarily. Does it work? Absolutely, yes.”

    …I think sums the whole thing up very well. I suspect Gabriel was at this point somewhat split between the proggy desire to infuse song lyrics with highfalutin’ literary qualities (normally with the most disastrous consequences) and a Lear-and-Carroll-via-Lennon instinct to just tumble out whatever surreal imagery entered his head. Sometimes you get too much of one over the other. Sometimes they just clash. But at others they juxtapose in a way which highlights both of them.

    Case in point, the segue on ’Supper’s Ready’ between the introspectively melancholic ’How Dare I Be So Beautiful?’ and the riotously surreal, Music-Hall-on-brown-acid ’Willow Farm’. Tony Banks later conceded at that point they effectively went “does combining these make any sense? No. Does it sound great? Yes. Let’s do it then.”

    And to think, before that early photo you posted I knew nothing of his parallel career as a George Harrison impersonator.

  2. To me, part of what makes it all work is the sheer joyous eclecticism of it all. So they wanted to do a song about carnivorous plants, then follow it with one on the Greek myth of the origin of hermaphrodites? Great! Go for it! I think almost all great work is done when it’s what the artist wants to do. The moment the artists starts calculating what the public wants. all is lost. (Which, to give a not-particularly surprising spoiler, will be the main theme of part 2 of this post.)

  3. Richard G. Whitbread

    ‘I think almost all great work is done when it’s what the artist wants to do.’

    Is there any evidence to suggest that Genesis didn’t want to record ‘Invisible Touch’? ;-)

  4. Genesis are my favourite old band, but I’m not a great fan, so I don’t own any of these, apart from tracks from the 3CD best of (and maybe the 1CD best of). So thanks for giving a good overview. I didn’t know (or had forgotten) of the early members who had moved on by the third album, so it’s interesting to get the full story. I’m looking forward to part 2, which is where the albums I own fit in. I see Duke as being a pivot between what came before and after, so I’d be interested to see what you say.

  5. Richard, that is actually a great question. Without wanting to pre-empt part 2 too much, my take is that while they obviously wanted to record Invisible Touch, it might by then have been more because of the money than because of the music.

    Paul, again I am tempted to leap ahead into part 2 :-) I will say that I like Duke, but for now I’ll say no more than that. Glad you’ve found this interesting.

  6. Pingback: Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 2: the Collins years | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  7. Pingback: Paul Simon: Paul Simon (1972) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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