There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.
Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.
And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.
So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone - can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.
Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).
As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.
And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.
For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.
Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)
And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.
Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).
Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.
And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.
There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.
Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.
An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.
Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.
Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.
Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.
Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”
Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.
Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.
In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.
The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.
But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.