Listen to this track by former Charterhouse school graduates and British progressive rock architects Genesis. It’s “Supper’s Ready”, the seven movement suite and final song from their classic 1972 album Foxtrot.
By the time of this record, the classic line-up that included new drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and recent recruit Steve Hackett on guitars had already put their first effort together; 1971’s Nursery Cryme. Empowered by their new level of musicianship, that record came complete with longer, seamless pieces, capturing a uniquely English sensibility with a bizarre sense of humour and high potential for the theatrical at the heart of it. And those ideas for longer, more ambitious statements continued in earnest by the next year on Foxtrot.
And “Supper’s Ready” would surpass all of the longer form pieces they’d done to date, in many ways being the culmination of all of the longer pieces they’d done from 1970’s pastoral and atmospheric “Stagnation”, to the vividly disturbing themes found in 1971’s “The Musical Box”. It would hook into some big, sweeping mythological motifs using even more vivid and florid imagery. But unlike their earlier work along the same lines, it would touch on a very personal, and very human set of themes that lies underneath its Biblical scale.
Clocking in at around 23 minutes, “Supper’s Ready” is an epic track in the grand tradition of early ’70s prog rock. But, it’s also in another tradition besides that dates back considerably further. It’s origins came from a reading of the book of Revelation from the Bible, with Magogs and dragons coming out of the sea being pretty prominent images. But, it also came from a frightening experience that singer Peter Gabriel and his then-wife Jill had experienced one evening while having a late-night conversation at the home of Jill’s parents, along with producer and friend John Anthony.
According to that story, Jill Gabriel had had an emotional episode that had been interpreted as a supernatural encounter; her voice changed as she spoke, making Peter Gabriel think she was possessed. Later, Gabriel had seen the “six saintly shrouded men (with a seventh in front, a cross held high in hand)” across the lawn as he looked out that same night. Real or not, all of this certainly hooked into some powerful mythological imagery that would feed one of the greatest musical statements for which Genesis would become known in this early era of their history.
In the light of that, the idea of “supper” is a pretty mundane and ordinary concept, and an odd title to a song that is so epic in its scale, maybe. But, supper is also an intimate ritual, a nurturing act. And for all of the grandiosity of the language and the sheer musical scale of this piece, “Supper’s Ready” is ultimately a love song. The simple supper on the table in one home is connected with that ultimate Biblical supper set before all of humanity by the end, with madness, conflict, and the Apocalypse appearing in between. It’s about the battle against good and evil on a cosmic scale, and about being connected to something greater than one’s self. But, it’s also about a single relationship too; hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true. Those are some wide thematic gaps to cover, and could easily have come off as being pretty piecemeal. But, this is pretty seamless thematically speaking, and it helped that the musicians were old hands at this even before they recorded “Supper’s Ready” in any case.
Like most of the songs Genesis had worked up, most of them came out of finding ways to connect various musical ideas coming from each member together into a whole. In this, “Supper’s Ready” isn’t all that unusual despite its scale, seeing as the band initially viewed themselves as a songwriting collective. Even if the result was delivered in distinct sections, it’s the collaborative nature of who created it that makes this a defining statement for Genesis, and one that would get play for many years afterward, including in their post-classic line-up incarnations.
Years after it was a stalwart piece either in full or in part across a decades-long career as a touring band, original Genesis member Tony Banks talked about writing “Supper’s Ready”, particularly the sections “Willow Farm” and “Apocalypse in 9/8”. Banks considered these to be the sections that made the song into what it is, musically speaking. But, to me the themes of love and the struggles to keep it together, all the while evoking mythological images to do so, does that quite smartly as well.
And despite their penchant for longer pieces like this one, they’d continue to explore another form on the album to follow; a bona fide four-minute radio hit! Their song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) from next year’s Selling England By The Pound would render a top twenty hit. Of course, there would be more hits to come as the 1970s became the 1980s, making it seem strange that this would the same band who’d once practically set the Book of Revelation to music as a 23 minute love song.
For more information, here’s a segment where all of the members of the band look back on the making of the record as a whole, and “Supper’s Ready” specifically.
And for those of you who are curious about what a Genesis show would have been like around this time, check out this recently restored concert taped live at Shepprton Studios in 1973, with an enhanced soundtrack and in high-def.