Here’s a clip of the classic Genesis line-up (Peter Gabriel on vocals, percussion, and flute, Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals, Steve Hackett on guitars, Mike Rutherford on bass and rhythm guitars, and Tony Banks on keyboards) doing their epic track “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” taken from (arguably) their best album of their early period, Selling England by the Pound from 1973.
Note the odd monologue before the song starts – a common practice which Gabriel used to entertain the audience, or at least hold their attention, until his bandmates tuned up.
Before ‘Sledgehammer’, ‘In Your Eyes’, and WOMAD, and certainly before ‘Land of Confusion’ and ‘Sussudio’, Genesis was a premier-league act in British progressive rock, or (affectionately) ‘prog’, along with King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Yes.
The group started at Charterhouse school in Surrey, England in 1966 when Gabriel, Banks, and Rutherford were still in their teens. But even after they’d been signed, and had put out their first two albums by 1970, they were considered as ‘studenty’ and dull on stage – playing their instruments while sitting down, and approaching the music in an academic way, rather than in a balls-out rock n’ roll fashion. Having read a review about how boring they were as a stage act, Gabriel took this as a challenge to up his game. So, the next show they did, he appeared on stage as as usual, but for the red dress and fox head mask, a figure which was featured on their 1972 album Foxtrot. And the rest of the band was just as surprised as the audience – he hadn’t told them about his costumes.
Gabriel would turn himself into several fantastic creatures while fronting the band until 1975 – the bat-like Watcher of the Skies, the ‘Flower’ as taken from the group’s apocalyptic epic “Supper’s Ready”, and most outrageously of all, the Slipperman which was one of the deformed characters from the band’s epic two-disc concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. His compatriots in the band began to feel that Peter’s theatrical approach to his duties as frontman was beginning to upstage the music. For instance, Peter’s Slipperman costume covered his entire head, making it difficult to get his microphone near his mouth.
The group would transform a number of times over the course of its life. Gabriel would leave in 1975 to pursue a lucrative solo career, and Hackett would follow his example in 1977. Collins, Rutherford, and Banks would re-fashion the band at the end of the 70s, slowly jettisoning its prog roots in favour of a more keyboard-driven r&b pop approach with every record. Ray Wilson would replace Collins in the 1990s as frontman for one album. Because of all of these personnel and stylistic changes, the question of whether or not one is a fan of Genesis is not quite as simple as the question would be if it centered around another band. It often depends on which stage of the band’s development that is being talked about.
For me, this 1971- 1975 period is the band at its most interesting – musically ambitious and skilled, kind of weird too, and with a better sense of humour than most bands of its ilk. And Gabriel is magnetic as a performer, but also as a vocalist. The influence of prog would continue to the twenty-first century, its mantle passed on to (to me, less interesting…) band’s like Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, and Tool, albeit with a harder edge. Many of the elements of prog would be there – complicated rhythms, costumes, epic-length song suites, and more. But, it would never have such a charismatic figure to champion it.
For more Gabriel-era Genesis, check out Canadian tribute band The Musical Box, who have recreated, and even re-used, some of the original costumes and sets from this early period in the band’s history. For those not old enough to catch an original early 70s Genesis show, this is (apparently) the next best thing. Both Phil Collins and Steve Hackett have sat in with the group during performances of the original material. And Gabriel has attended their shows. How’s that for an endorsement?
[Update, March 21, 2014 – for an even more expansive idea of this era of the band’s history, take a look at this article announcing an unearthed 1973 concert of Genesis playing Shepperton Studios, now in HD no less. At the time of this writing, you can watch the concert in full on an embed found at the bottom of the article.]