This song is the track which really introduced me to this band, which had been a going concern for a number of years before I came across them. The group is led by Steven Wilson, who began the band as something of a fictional lost band from the early 70s, when prog, or progressive rock, was at the height of popularity. But, in fairly short order, Wilson put out a string of records which borrowed from the early years of prog, and eventually added something of a hard rock edge as Porcupine Tree became more of a going concern as a 90s band.
“Piano Lessons” clearly pulls in a number of Pink Floyd stylistic references for which the group had become known on past releases, yet also brings out something of Wilson’s ability to balance style with accessibility. So, ultimately this is a pop song in a rock setting. The rest of the album follows suit, with the Floyd approach to creating atmosphere mixed with the aggression of hard rock and European progressive metal.
I first heard this song on a sampler, and couldn’t believe it was the band that I’d seen earlier at the Strawberry Fair Festival in Cambridge a year or two before. That group was more experimental, and slightly unfocused. But, on this they got to the point without being dull. Clearly, Wilson had evolved the band since their earlier period as an artier, more experimental band. On this, Wilson shows his interest in putting across songs, instead of just trying to capture a sound.
Here’s a clip of Canadian math-rock progists Rush with their 1978 track “Xanadu” as taken from their album A Farewell to Kings. Of any North American band who ever tried to match their European progressive rock counterparts for complexity and lyrical conception, it is Rush. This track is a part of their middle-phase, when their high concept material and intricate playing began to define them.
The first phase had them as skilled Zeppelinists, pumping out hard blues-rock much like Zep, but not really nailing down a voice of their own. By 1976, with their album 2112, and with the addition of a new drummer and lyricist in Neil Peart, their musical ambitions expanded with more rhythmic complexity, longer instrumental passages, conceptual lyrics, and approach to presenting their songs as a part of a greater whole. And so was the second phase of the band’s career begun, with a slight shift from Led Zeppelin to something more akin to Yes with bigger cojones, and just as the prog rock was beginning to wane in Europe. I think the success of the group lay in the fact that they built on their Zep-head roots, while adding something new to the prog landscape.
Sure, “Xanadu” is complex, and dependent upon source material having to do with the English Romantic poetry of Coleridge more than with the riffage of Chuck Berry. But, it doesn’t forget to rock, as well as build a story. So, the stoners bought in, but so did the musos and sci-fi geeks. That’s quite an achievement for a little band formed in Willowdale Ontario, just north of Toronto.
Ironically, the single taken from this same record is “Closer to the Heart”, marked with the same lofty lyrics as anything else on the album, and looked upon as something of a signature tune even today. It was certainly a radio staple. And perhaps it was the success of CTTH that the band began their third phase, which was about radio-friendly singles with only a hint of their progressive rock leanings, as opposed to the unabashed, arguably long-winded ‘prog’ as found on “Xanadu”.
As such, they rode out the backlash against big, generic corporate rock shows by continuing to pursue the three piece hard rock of their roots, matched with an embrace of technology – keyboards, MIDI technology – that sustained them into the 1980s. By the next decade of course their appeal was cemented. Today, they’re an institution, true prog/hard rock survivalists who have gained pan-generational appeal; a rare thing indeed.
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.]