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.
Here’s a clip from so-called neo-proggists, Manchester-based Elbow with their 2001 single “Newborn” taken from their critically acclaimed, and Mercury Prize nominated debut album Asleep in the Back.
When I first heard this single, I was living in the UK and heard it on the London version of XFM, which at the time confirmed for me that the British know how to do radio better than in any country in the world. Well, at least better than here, which I guess diminishes the statement somewhat. Never mind. The point is, it was a unique sound, and critics agreed. I remember the band interviewed on Jo Wiley’s program. Two members of the band were being interviewed, and I remember the banter very well:
Singer, Guy Garvey: Actually, we’re very influenced by the first wave of progressive rock. We’re like prog, but without the lengthy solos.
Guitarist, Mark Potter: No, we’re bloody not! We’re nothing like bleedin’ prog rock!
GG: (To Potter) Yes, we are.
MP: We’re not!
GG: (to Jo Wiley, knowingly and with a cheeky smirk) We are.
It’s kind of hard to deny that the band do betray some shades of prog, although it’s equally easy to say that they don’t. To me they sound kind of like Talk Talk as fronted by Peter Gabriel. But, I digress. The tension there is perhaps the engine of what makes the band successful, and why they’re able to deliver such strong material. And it’s interesting that with such a strong vocal resemblence that Garvey has with Gabriel, the band actually recorded at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath.
Although the record was nominated for the coveted Mercury Prize in 2001, they lost out to PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Yet, they continued to put out high quality albums on their own terms, developing their sound. And this year, their album The Seldom Seen Kid won the prize.
Here’s a clip of British prog behemoths Yes performing one of my favourite tracks from 1971’s The Yes Album, “Your Move’, which is actually one of the movements from the longer piece as listed on the record, “I’ve Seen All Good People”. In addition, the group works in the Steve Howe classical guitar showcase ‘Mood For A Day’, as well as an acoustic rendition of the band’s FM radio staple hit ‘Long Distance Runaround’.
The Yes album was a make-or-break record for this group, who were seeking to expand their sound from the single-driven pop music they had been making on their first album into a form that was more musically ambitious. In forming the band in 1968, Bassist and vocalist Chris Squire and lead vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson were interested in the catchiness of beat music which had preceded them, having both served in local beat groups. Yet, they also wanted to work in the harmonies they were hearing in Simon & Garfunkel, as well as the lilting melodies of traditional British folk music.
By the time they got guitarist Steve Howe into the group in 1971 for this album, they had even more musical scope from which to draw, with Howe bringing in jazz and bluegrass textures to add to the mix. They were able to move beyond the standard song-by-song approach on their debut album, and create longer pieces that were more like movements in a classical piece.
Yes had hit their stride at just the right time. The market for this music was shifting. The teen rock audience was growing up, and the time was ripe to give what many considered to be greater depth to rock. This meant more complicated arrangements, grand lyrical themes, and virtuoso playing, all of which Yes had been pursuing. By the following year, they’d recruited keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman (David Bowie, The Strawbs), who expanded their compositional potential to an even greater degree, helping them to create their two most admired albums in Close to the Edge and Fragile. Yes certainly embodied all that was good in prog rock, sticking to their stylistic guns late into the decade even when their peers changed their sound to suit the changing times (Genesis), or withered away entirely (Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
By the 80s of course, they’d adapted too, with membership in the band shifting as much as the group’s style was. Their biggest hit to date is 1983’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which had been released after Howe and Wakeman had long departed, and when the group had returned to a more single-driven rock sound. Yet, today, the band are centered around the sound of their early 70s period, with a rotating membership which includes both Howe and Wakeman, with many other past members also making appearances with the group. Classic prog may no longer be as ubiquitous as it once was. But, audiences new and old are still discovering it.
Of course even when prog roamed the earth in its heyday, there were a lot of rock fans who still wanted to dance around and break things rather than ruminate on weighty lyrics and shifting time signatures. This gave rise to other tributaries of rock music, which eventually led to pub rock, power pop, and punk scenes. As such, the 70s was a decade where a being rock and roll fan was no longer about being under a common banner. Rock journo Lester Bangs said “We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis”. Maybe the seeds were planted before hand. Yet, the advent of prog rock is a pretty striking example of ‘you either love it, or you don’t’, and the definition of rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same.
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.]
Here’s a clip of the retro-rock tune “Sister Surround” by Sweden’s The Soundtrack of Our Lives.
I was reminded of the greatness of this 2001 track by some of my colleagues recently. It sounds like a classic track from decades past, although I’m not quite sure which decade that is. The album off of which it comes, Behind the Music, contains some Pink-Floydian references as well as some late-Beatles textures as well. I guess this puts the sound of the record into the late 60s-early 70s. Yet this track is more like mid-80s anthem rock – but without the fromage. It kind of sounds a bit like the Cult on a really good day, with vocals you don’t have to guess at quite as much. But this is beside the point. This song rocks like a proverbial bastard – and that’s what counts.
Enjoy! And as always, good people, tell me what you think!