Listen to this track by parodic prog rock paragons Genesis. It’s “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”, a tale of botanical horror as featured on the 1971 album Nursery Cryme, their third. The album kicked off a new era for Genesis; new members, new textures, and a new sense of scale.
The vital additions to the band by this time were drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and guitarist Steve Hackett. Both musicians added their considerable instrumental chops to the material on the record to raise the whole band’s game. As a result, they helped to assure the group’s place as top shelf participants in a growing movement of bands at the time who traded on complex musical structures and often very high-minded lyrical subject matter.
To me, what made Genesis unique in their early output is that they could take conventions of all kinds and bring out the absurdities in them, no matter how obscure or mundane. And here, they’re able to write a song about an invasion, while also rooting it (pardon the pun) in an area not generally drawn on by most songwriters; botany. But there’s also hint at another area of interest that can be traced in their work that delves deeper still. Read more
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.
Listen to this track by progressive rock guitarist, composer, and one-time Genesis member Steve Hackett. It’s “Ace of Wands”, the lead track from Hackett’s debut solo album, 1975’s The Voyage of the Acolyte. This is an album he recorded and released while still a member of Genesis, and with the help of two of his bandmates; Phil Collins plays drums and sings lead on a number of tracks, and Michael Rutherford plays bass, and second 12-string guitar.
What can be gleaned from this track is just how important Hackett’s playing is to the classic Genesis sound; angular, yet lyrical, and evocative of a certain spirit of the time that actually pulls the whole genre into focus. Hackett takes his influences of rock and classical music, and synthesizes an approach to both, making the music on the record extremely evocative of a something that suggests a wordless narrative unfolding, like a soundtrack to a film that the listener makes up as the music plays. That’s what prog always strives for, after all! Read more
Listen to this song, a confessional piece from an artist formerly known for his role-playing more so than for his emotional candour. It’s Peter Gabriel with his “Digging in the Dirt” as taken from his 1992 album Us, a record that was a loose concept album about the nature of relationships.
When Peter Gabriel fronted Genesis, the role he appeared to take on was a using himself as an empty canvas, literally and figuratively dressing himself for each song; a Moonlight Knight, a Watcher of the Skies, a rapidly and unnaturally aged old man, a deformed Slipperman, and many others. He used his body as a tool to communicate characters, with costumes, with hairstyles, with make-up.
It was the early 70s, a period rife with this kind of theatricality and distance between audience and performer. Gabriel and his bandmates were in their early 20s, and (not to put too fine a point on it) British. The possibility that the band would take on a confessional singer-songwriter approach that revealed their deepest vulnerabilities and complex psychologies without filtering it through a character was pretty remote. Even by his arguable peak as a solo artist in the mid-80s, Gabriel was known more as an animated head, more so than a fully-dimensional person in his own songs.
But, by the early 90s, Gabriel had come a fair distance, career-wise and on a personal level, too. He’d been married and divorced. He’d had high-profile affairs with celebrities. His children were grown up. And he’d moved on from the approach that had him emphasizing fanstastical or observational material, including a more political vantage point starting in the 80s, telling stories of social oppression (‘Biko’) and the fear of where reactionary politics might affect our fate as a species (‘Red Rain’).
By the time Us came out, he was ready to tell his own story using his own face. And this was the first single, which revealed all of the pain and turmoil that is often associated with the great adventure that is involved in seeking intimacy with another. The emotions here are extreme, with frustration and rage in a relationship (‘shut your mouth, I know what you are..’) coupled with a recognition that isolation is just as intolerable (‘stay with me, I need support…’). It also acknowledges that seeking the past is a key to the future too, with finding that which is ‘dark and sticky’ inside of us is the first step in dealing with it.
This song was representative of the album as a whole, with songs like ‘The Blood of Eden’, ‘Washing of the Water’, and ‘Secret World’ being other highlights that brought out some of the writer’s most intensely personal material he’d ever committed to vinyl. In some ways, it’s no wonder that he took over a decade to follow this up, seeming to say it all here.
For more information about Peter Gabriel including news of a new album and tour, check out petergabriel.com.
Also, it’s notable that video for “Digging in the Dirt” includes footage of a snail-festooned Gabriel, who endured some pain in letting them crawl on him. In the days before you could fake that kind of thing, those are real snails. And they had a bite or two while the video was being filmed. Talk about an artist’s dedication!
Listen to this song by a post-Peter Gabriel, Genesis. It’s ‘Entangled’, the second track from the 1976 album Trick of the Tail, on which a supremely gifted drummer becomes lead singer upon the departure of a charismatic frontman. Such a turn of events in the life of a band of this stature is usually considered the beginning of the end. Yet in this case, it turned out to be more like the end of the beginning where international popularity is concerned.
On Gabriel’s departure from Genesis in May of 1975, the reality of the situation came to light for the remaining four members – drummer Phil Collins, bassist Mike Rutherford, keyboardist Tony Banks, and guitarist Steve Hackett. The New Musical Express and other music papers of the time called the band’s future into question, and fans were understandably concerned. It seemed prudent to look for a replacement lead singer immediately. In the meantime, the instrumental tracks of this album were being recorded.
Collins was the most involved in coaching prospective lead vocalists on the band’s material. After all, Collins had provided backing vocals, and occasional leads, since he joined the band in 1971. He knew the cues. And eventually, it was decided that Collins was the man for full-time lead vocals, even if Collins was initially reticent to be anything other than a drummer.
And the result was this album, released in February 1976. As this pristine, beautifully layered song ‘Entangled’ reveals, the album was something of a return to their early 70s sound, and a little less angular and psychologically knotty than the previous, Gabriel-led The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. So, where the prog-rock strain of the band is still in place here, in some ways this record, and this song, was a kick-off to new era of pop accessibility.
The approach served them well during this time of transition. This album scored them the highest chart placements than they’d ever enjoyed before, with a number 3 in the UK, and a number 31 in North America. With a popular frontman gone, and with a new lead voice in place, Genesis had beaten the odds and then some.
The four-piece incarnation of the band would see them through another album, Wind & Wuthering, and a two-disc live album in Seconds Out, which featured Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford helping out on drums with Collins singing out front. Chester Thompson would perform a similar role on subsequent tours for decades to come, although Collins would continue as drummer as well as singer, both on tour and in the studio.
After the release of the live album, guitarist Steve Hackett would also leave the band to pursue a solo career full time. Hackett recorded a solo record before his departure, Voyage of the Acolyte, which featured, among other musicians, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, and is often thought of as something of a lost Genesis album. But, by all accounts Hackett’s share in recorded material on the Wind & Wuthering was less than he was comfortable with. The freedom of a solo career seemed the obvious choice for him.
The band would not replace him, officially. Much like the way Collins filled in for Peter Gabriel, bassist Mike Rutherford would double on guitar in the studio, and work with guitarist in Daryl Stuermer in live appearances, joining Chester Thompson as a long-term touring musician. The next album by 1978, … And Then There Were Three, was aptly named. And the out and out pop song “Follow You, Follow Me” would mark yet another career trajectory; multi-million selling top 40 chart success as a trio.
[UPDATE: March 13, 2018 – here’s an article that goes into even more detail on how Phil Collins transitioned into the lead singer of the band – reluctantly, and gradually over the course of rehearsals for this very album!]
The story which is threaded through the songs on this album is a sort of phantasmagorical quest myth, based as it was on a series of dreams that frontman and lyricist Peter Gabriel was having at the time. Also, the band had made a trip to New York City the year before, and the cityscape had made an impression. This contributed to the lead “character” in the story, Rael, a homeless New York street urchin who is swallowed up by a mysterious phenomenon while exiting an all-night movie theatre in Times Square. He’s cast into a series of subterranean adventures (literal or psychological? You be the judge) , while trying to locate his brother John, who may in fact be a facet of his own identity, rather than an actual person (again – you be the judge).
Among the many odd adventures Rael has is his encounter in an underground cavern pool with the Lamia, seductive beings with bodies of serpents and faces of beautiful women. Stay with me, now, good people. They entice him to have a four-way, inter-species romp with them in the pool. They bite him (and he “feels no pain”) and drink some of his blood. Unfortunately, his blood is poisonous to them, and they die (who knew?). So, what does our hero do? He does what anyone in his position would do; he eats their remains, which apparently taste of garlic and chocolate. It may surprise you to learn that this is a really bad idea, leading to all kinds of Freudian consequences.
You can read the lyrics to the song here, and follow along.
The full story of ‘The Lamb’ album itself was compelling enough for Exorcist film director William Friedkin to approach Gabriel about a proposed film, which never came to fruition. As murky and weird as the story is, what really counts here is the atmosphere the band creates to supplement their established musicianly chops. They’re able to get a sort of dream-like effect which is true to the lyrics, with the help of one Brian Eno on board who creates something of a sonic backdrop. All of this allowed them to create what many consider to be their definitive statement as a five-piece.
The group would tour the album in 1974-75, the final bow of an era before Gabriel quit Genesis to “grow cabbages and raise children”. He legitimately intended to quit being a musician, before reconsidering and returning in 1977, having completely re-invented himself as a solo artist.
Here’s an interesting site that has recreated some of the “scenes” from the Lamb album via a series of paintings, including the Lamia episode.
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.]