Don’t know who will be reading this, but this will be an album by album look at one of my favorite bands, and a very misunderstood one from the Progressive Rock era-Genesis. This is a band who had a few very distinctive eras and they were all highly different from one another. Not too many artists can go from the 20 minutes plus of “Supper’s Ready” to the blatant Pop of “Invisible Touch”, but these guys did, and yet somehow it all made sense-to me anyway.
Not everything the band did was excellent of course, and not every decision wise-but one could say that about just about any act-especially one that survived as long as Genesis did.
The band was formed in 1967 from two rival bands at the Public school Charterhouse that were called The New Anon and Garden Wall. To say the least, these bands did not achieve stardom, but Peter Gabriel (voc, flute), Anthony Phillips (gtr), Michael Rutherford (bass, gtr), Tony Banks (kybds) and Chris Stewart (drums) came together and formed Genesis initially playing for school friends only. They made a demo tape and Jonathan King a Charterhouse alum who had some success in the music business, got them a deal with Decca. Two flop singles came and went in 1968 then Stewart was replaced by Jon Silver.
Yes, it was actually a completely black cover. Actually, it was better it was virtually anonymous, because it was terrible! What is especially amusing, is that most record shops had no idea who the band was or what the music was, and with nothing to go by, many stores placed the LP in the Religious section!
A debut in every sense of the word, the album was pathetic attempt at making the band sound like a cross between the Moody Blues, Bee Gees and Beatles and had cheesy orchestrations that were obviously tacked on and added after the songs had been recorded much to the band’s shock and horror.
Songs such as “Where The Sour Turns To Sweet”, “Am I Very Wrong?” and “Window” were laughably bad, but it wasn’t all the band’s fault as they were hopelessly misguided. The album reportedly sold fewer than 65o copies in the UK. Yikes! The record has been reissued many times over the years under various names and actually would reach the US charts in 1974 for a bit as enough stoned fools thought it was a new album after the band had become popular and bought it. No doubt when they got home and put the album on, they cried.
After the album bombed they severed their ties with King (and wisely so) and weren’t sure if a professional career in music was a possibility. A new drummer would join in Jonathan Mayhew who was really the first Genesis drummer that was actually competent. Fortunately, Tony Stratton-Smith who owned Charisma Records liked the band and thought they had promise and signed them in 1970. They wrote a lot of material (supposedly enough for a double album) and this led to their second LP Trespass which came out in the fall of that year.
Light years ahead of the pathetic debut album, Trespass saw the band expanding their sound by adding lots of 12-string guitars, lengthy arrangements and more complex songwriting. Though the album is a bit dull and too tranquil and folky in places, it does have some excellent material.
Songs such as “White Mountain”, “Looking For Someone”, “Stagnation” and especially the 9-minute epic “The Knife” see the band beginning to evolve into a full-fledged Progressive Rock act and writing some very high-quality songs. Some of these are a bit underdeveloped, but the one standout number would be “The Knife” which features dynamic keyboard/guitar interplay between Banks and Phillips as well as Gabriel’s impassioned vocals which are spot on. However, the production is a bit disappointing. The guitars are too low in the mix and some of the sounds are muddled. John Anthony did a respectable job producing, but not much more than that.
Though Trespass did not reach the UK or US charts (where it was issued on Impulse/ABC) it saw Genesis starting to develop a cult following and it went to #1 in Belgium. I’m not sure if going to #1 in Belgium gets you more than some excellent waffles, but it’s better than not being #1 in Belgium.
However, Phillips would depart the band soon after as he had a growing interest in painting and Classical music. He was afraid to tell the others and also developed pneumonia. He had also been suffering from stage fright. The others were very unsure if they could carry on, but decided to do so and took out an ad in Melody Maker for both a guitar player and a drummer. The first man they hired was drummer/vocalist Phil Collins formerly of the band Flaming Youth which is a really horrible name. Collins was an amazing drummer who could play anything from Rock to Jazz and also had an excellent voice. Genesis supposedly also hired him because he told the best jokes. A fill-in guitarist named Mick Barnard played for a few months until Steve Hackett from the band Quiet World joined. What would be known as the band’s classic lineup was now complete.
In 1971 this lineup debuted with the album Nursery Cryme.
It was with this album where Genesis truly evolved into a fully fledged Progressive Rock act. Nursery Cryme was an unusual mix of very long tracks and quirky, short songs. The album’s centrepiece was “The Musical Box” a 10 and a half minute epic that was both beautiful and frightening at the same time especially lyrically. The song is set in Victorian times with two young children in a country house named Cynthia and Henry. Henry’s head gets lopped off by Cynthia with a croquet mallet (naturally). Later on, Cynthia finds a musical box and Henry’s spirit shows and begins a quick aging process. Henry’s spirit then tries to get Cynthia to have sex with him (I wish I was making this up). Before anything can happen Henry’s nurse appears and throws the musical box destroying both of them. This was Gabriel’s idea and I’d love to know what he was smoking. Nonetheless the song is breathtaking musically and the finale is powerful. The other long songs are “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed” (as odd as it sounds but with a scorching Hackett guitar solo) and “The Fountain of Salmacis” which is about the nymph Salmacis from Greek mythology. Hackett lays down another amazing solo and Tony Banks’s keyboard work with lots of mellotron thrown in is outstanding. But, the lyrics are out there man-way out there. “Seven Stones” is only a bit over 5 minutes and is a decent but not too memorable track.
The other tunes are all quaint little ditties in a very British fashion. Collins sings his first lead on “For Absent Friends” about two widowers, and “Harlequin”and “Harold The Barrel” (about a restaurant owner offing himself). Though the album did not chart in the UK or US the group were now developing a serious following live. Nursery Cryme would actually reach the UK Top 40 in 1974 once the band became big. The tour for the album saw the band delivering amazing shows, although aside from Gabriel and Collins the others more or less just stood there (or in some cases sat there). This would eventually change when Gabriel became, to say the least a tad artsy.
In 1972, Genesis issued a non-album single “Happy The Man” which was a good attempt at crossing over with something a bit more accessible. It didn’t chart in the UK or US, but it was a good song. Later in the year they would issue their next LP Foxtrot. This album proved to be their breakthrough commercially, although it was certainly odd that it was this album that proved to be the one to lead to bigger sales.
Any album with a demented 23 minute song such as “Supper’s Ready” could hardly be predicted to be the success that Foxtrot proved to be. I still have no idea what the hell the song is about, but it is an amazing piece of music with all kinds of twists and turns. The song has 7 separate parts and a variety of time signatures and changes with dazzling playing by all the members. In an interview on the popular show Rockline in 1986, Gabriel was quoted as saying the song was “a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible….I’ll leave it at that”. To me, it’s really up to the listener to interpret this song any way they want, but what is especially interesting is that certain segments like Part I: “Lover’s Leap” and Part V: “Willow Farm” and Part VI: “Apocalypse in 9/8” can all be enjoyed separately from the piece. It is best however to absorb the song in full-it is a travel well worth taking. Without a doubt, “Supper’s Ready” is a benchmark in the history of Progressive Rock.
Yet, the album’s best track is arguably the opening song “Watcher Of The Skies”. Simply put, this is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. The haunting opening from Banks on mellotron sets the mood for the opening passage. Eventually, the rhythm section comes in with a 6/4 time signature that keeps building. Once Gabriel comes in with the impassioned vocals, Rutherford and Collins create a moving, intricate pattern on bass and drums respectively. Towards the end Hackett creates a crying guitar sound which then leads to the explosive finale. The song’s title comes from a line a poem by Keats and the lyrics from Banks and Rutherford based on the idea of an alien visitor surveying a deserted part of Earth. Yeah, sure, it’s a bit corny, but there is no denying how great this song is and it was an effective opener for their live shows.
“Horizons” is a beautiful acoustic guitar instrumental performed by Hackett. If I remember he said he was just tuning up one day and came up with it, but it’s one of my favorite solo guitar pieces even if it’s less than 2 minutes long. “Table Time” is a catchy song, but I never cared for the others “Can-Utility And The Coastliners” and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday”. Still, Foxtrot is highly recommended and you can’t do much better than the moments of brilliance on this album. David Hitchcock’s production afforded Genesis their best sound qaulity to date by far and Foxtrot would hit #12 on the UK charts and though it did not chart in America, they would play their first 2 US gigs in Boston and New York which despite sound problems went over incredibly well.
Charisma then forced the band to release Genesis Live a concert album that was released in 1973.
Genesis Live became the band’s first UK Top 10 album hitting #9. The recordings came from a King Biscuit Flower Hour show that never actually aired. It was not a double album thus no live version of “Supper’s Ready” would appear which was a disappointment to the fans and the band. Fantastic live versions of “Watcher Of The Skies”, “The Knife” and “The Musical Box” are the highlights as well as the photo of Gabriel in one of his by-now common bizarro outfits.
In late 1973 the new studio album Selling England By The Pound was issued and soared to #3 on the UK charts and also became their first LP to crack the US charts at #70 eventually going Gold. This album also provided the first Genesis hit single with the catchy, but weird “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” which would just miss the UK Top 20. The song is about a young man working as a groundsman quite content with his job pushing a lawnmower despite those around him offering all kinds of suggestions as to what he should do.
The album also features some beautiful, grandiose epics in “Firth Of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show”. “Firth Of Fifth” is a very complicated piece (and clocks in just shy of 10 minutes) in 13/16 and 15/16 time and certain segments in 2/4 all of which Collins handles masterfully on drums. There’s a stunning elongated guitar solo that ranks as one of Hackett’s finest and Banks’s work on both piano and synth is amazing. The opening piano seuqence was quickly abandoned live because Banks did not feel he could do it justice. Gabriel also lays down some flute melodies as part of the main theme. The instrumental section would feature in Genesis live shows for years including the reunion tour of 2007.
As for “The Cinema Show”, this song is another romantic song running 11 minutes and mostly in 7/8 with some segemnts in 4/4. The keyboard soloing and drumming are amazing and the song lyricall deals with two characters Romeo and Juliet each preparing on their own for date night.