Saturday, 19 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 6: Selling England By The Pound

Something happened to Progressive music in 1973: a wave of creativity broke over the music scene and the ripples of that tidal surge are still being felt over 40 years later. This was the year that showed us the Dark Side of the Moon, where we feasted on Lark's Tongues in Aspic and performed Brian Salad Surgery whilst living In a Glass House.

Many have speculated as to what was Genesis's finest hour. Was it the epic splendour of Supper's Ready (voted by Progzilla radio recently the favourite prog rock track of all time); was it the tortured and tortuous tale told in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; or was it their 1973 album, Selling England By The Pound?

The album certainly marks a quantum lead by the band in terms of musical invention and lyrical creativity, assisted by the broadening of Tony Banks's musical palette with the introduction of an ARP synthesizer alongside the Mellotron & Hammond organ. The band are still telling stories, an enduring and endearing feature of the band's output, and continue to exhibit an abundant virtuosity in their playing. It was the first of their albums to break into the Top 10 in the UK, peaking at number 3, and spawned the band's first hit single, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), which was itself inspired by the cover art produced this time by Betty Swanwick. In its sequencing, the collection alternates between long and short songs, though whether this was a deliberate move I'm not sure, but as all the long songs are of such high quality it is perhaps good for the listener to have a brief respite between them.

The album opens with 'Dancing With The Moonlit Knight', a song bemoaning the diminution of British uniqueness in contemporary life as transatlantic influences begin to take hold - perhaps prophetic in the McDonaldised, Starbucked, Disneyfied and Wal*Marted towns and cities of today. Like Trespass before it, the opening notes are from Gabriel's voice, with his plaintiff cry: "Can you tell me where my country lies?" Is the 'Queen of Maybe' who answers his call the Disney corporation, I wonder? The opening section is dominated by muted guitar and keyboards, with Gabriel's vocals forceful and clear. A pleasant guitar motif ripples through these early verses, before the Mellotron kicks in in full choir, and as the Knights of the Green Shield begin to stamp and shout the band gets its groove on and  starts to rock! There's already a new, more exciting feel to the music than hitherto: more inventive and playful. The rocky feel fades, and the song ends in a dreamy, meditative passage which (if Wikipedia is to be believed!) was originally meant to segue into Cinema Show, thus creating another 20 minute piece: this was abandoned as an idea, as it was felt that it might be seen as trying to reproduce Supper's Ready.

Instead we move on to 'I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)', which, as I mentioned above, went on to be the band's first hit single, peaking just outside the Top 20. At its heart is a simple 4-note guitar riff which gives the band scope to improvise over the top, and the finished article came out of a studio jam. In later live renditions it leaves room for many of their other songs to be referenced, as well as space for Phil Collins' tambourine tarantella. The lyrics are essentially nonsense, but no less fun for that!

'Firth of Fifth' opens with a blistering solo piano piece from Tony Banks, who shows just what a consummate performer and composer he is: sheer sublime beauty, yet full of energy and panache! As the band come in it feels a little awkward musically as the momentum that has built up seems to falter and the tempo slows. But this song is here to showcase Banks, and after a flute passage from Gabriel we are back to keyboards, first piano then synth, picking up themes from the opening section. This then leads us to Steve Hackett picking up those themes and others with a soaring solo. This is truly breathtaking symphonic music at its finest, rising to a series of crescendi before finding resolution as the vocals return (not quite as awkwardly as previously): it is, to my mind, the band's finest piece of work.

If 'Firth' was essentially a Banks composition, then the next song (although all songs are credited to the whole band) is the work of Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. 'More Fool Me' gives Collins the opportunity, for only the second time since he joined the band, to take to the microphone as lead vocalist (something he kinda got used to after 1975!). Like 'For Absent Friends', his first (uncredited) venture to the front of the stage, this is a quiet ballad with just 12-string acoustic guitar and vocals, with Phil singing backing voice as well as lead. Like much of Collins' later solo material this is a song about the fragility of human relationships: a kind of anti-love song almost, but nonetheless quite endearing in a slightly treacly kind of way.

The sources of inspiration for Genesis's songs has always been wide and varied, which is part of the band's appeal to many: you never really know what's going to come next! 'The Battle of Epping Forest', the longest track on the album, was inspired by a news story about gang rivalry in the East-End of London. This is a great song, almost in the English music-hall or pantomime tradition with its varied voices, pun-laden lyrics and changes in musical style, and fits nicely alongside 'Harold The Barrel' and 'Get 'Em Out By Friday' from their earlier canon. The battle is followed by a rare instrumental piece (only the second such so far), 'After The Ordeal', a guitar work by Steve Hackett divided between an acoustic section backed by piano, and and electric solo with organ, piano and drums, and flute joining towards the end.

'Cinema Show', the last of the long songs, begins with 12-string guitars backing the vocals, which grows slowly as the rest of the band joins in for the chorus. There then follows an extended instrumental passage with Gabriel providing flute and oboe motifs before more vocal interplay between Gabriel & Collins leads us back to the chorus. Hackett restates the vocal line on electric guitar, before an extended synth solo from Banks builds to a crescendo before gently picking up the guitar motif from 'Dancing With The Moonlit Night' (which this track was originally meant to follow) and leading into 'Aisle of Plenty', effectively a reprise of the opening cut, which suitably book-ends the album.

Thus ends one of the sublimest 53½ minutes of progressive rock ever recorded. It's very difficult to say anything about this album without sounding overly gushing in praise: it's just that good! In the 43 years that have passed since its release little has come close to bettering it in the field, and it continues to grow on me with every listen.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 5: Genesis Live

Live albums are prone to elicit various reactions from punters and pundits alike. Some view them as simply a money-making venture, getting the loyal fans to fork out for material they already own often in a sub-standard version. Others see such albums as a window into the band at their rawest, often (though not always) unsullied by studio 'fiddling', a capturing of the primal energy which drew the masses to their music in the first place.

Genesis Live, the band's first dalliance with such a medium, was recorded in February 1973 during the tour to promote 'Foxtrot', at shows in the De Montfort Hall, Leicester and the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, and released later in the same year, as the band were busy in the studio working on their next set of new songs, 'Selling England By The Pound'. As such it presents a snapshot of the band beginning to emerge from cult to mainstream status, and gives an interesting insight into how their material was being received, which seems to be quite positively.

The sleeve notes contain a rather bizzare, surreal tale of a young lady on a tube train - possibly a dream of Gabriel's or maybe the product of a fertile and perhaps chemically-enhanced imagination, but a narrative which foreshadows the back story to 1974's 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway'.

The set is made up of some of the longer songs from the previous three albums, though not 'Supper's Ready', which provides the cover image (Apocalypse in 9/8, I think). We open with 'Watcher of The Skies' from Foxtrot, and move on to 'Get 'Em Out By Friday' from the same album. Next is 'The Return Of The Giant Hogweed' and 'Musical Box' (which appears to have dropped its article) from Nursery Cryme, and the set concludes with 'The Knife' from Trespass, by which point the crowd seem to have finally woken up! All are faithful renditions of the material, perhaps slavishly so at times (except that Gabriel struggles to remember some of the words in The Knife), with little if any improvisation: Hackett puts in some guitar effects in 'Hogweed' as the 'botanical creature stirs', but apart from that...

The interaction between the band and the crowd is a little muted: a quiet 'Good evening' after the opener (which elicts an equally quiet response), and the simple statement of the title of the next song is pretty much all there is - apart from a brief glimpse of Gabriel's wittier side with a quip about an unaccompanied bass-pedal solo just before Musical Box. Other live recordings, such as those in the first volume of their Archive collection, show Gabriel much more at play with the audience, which I prefer if I'm honest.

On balance this is an OK album, nothing more. The choice of songs, although offering some light and shade, does tend towards the more bombastic material, and it might have been good to have an idea of how the more lyrical tracks played live. Perhaps one for the completist.

Friday, 11 March 2016

RIP Keith Emerson

2016 is less than 25% through and already a number of rock music's brightest stars have been taken from us. Today another has gone: the glorious, irreverent, inspirational and innovative Keith Emerson.

Here's a reminder of him at the beginning of his career, with The Nice. RIP, and keep rocking!


Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 4: Foxtrot

By 1972 an increasing feature of Progressive music was the 'Epic', an extended song sometimes taking up the whole side of an LP (and occasionally more than one side): Pink Floyd's 'Echoes', Focus's 'Anonymous Two', and Jethro Tull's 'Thick as a Brick' being just some examples also from this year - the latter taking up the whole album! At this stage in their own progression, Genesis were not to be left behind.

Foxtrot, the band's fourth release, is widely held to be one of the seminal albums of Progressive Rock, and as such it is not easy to come to it dispassionately. At its heart is the almost 23-minute epic, 'Supper's Ready' (to which I will return), some of whose content forms the inspiration of the third and final piece of album artwork by Paul Whitehead, whose style is almost as synonymous with Genesis as Roger Dean's is with Yes.

The album opens with 'Watcher Of The Skies', and one of the most memorable and atmospheric openings to a song in the progressive canon: the extended concatenation of chords on the Mellotron morphing to the gentle introduction of bass and drums which builds to a staccato climax on the guitar as Gabriel's vocals kick in. The music ebbs and flows through various textures & rhythms, and Hackett's guitar comes to the fore in places, battling for dominance with Banks' keyboards. Written as humanity was taking its first tentative steps towards other worlds (well, the moon at least), and at the height of Vietnam and the Cold War, the song speculates on how those outside our planet might assess our track record and our ambition. But maybe with the benefit of hindsight, might this be just as relevant to the current climate change debate? Is the answer within ourselves and within our grasp, or do we need to look beyond - physically or metaphysically - for a solution?

Time Table is a mellower piece, beginning with classical-sounding piano arpeggios before the lilting melody arrives. The guitars are quite muted in this song, but Rutherford's bass comes more to the fore, almost providing a counter-melody in places. This is a song of nostalgic reminiscence, perhaps inspired by a visit to an old castle or stately home (?), but also of despair as humanity seems incapable of not repeating the mistakes of the past.

One of the appealing features of Genesis's music is the subject matter which inspires their songs. There aren't many bands who would sing about property speculation and eugenics, but this band do in Get 'Em Out By Friday. This is another of their story/ dialogue/ dramatic songs (a la 'Harold the Barrel') and involves the dubious dealings of John Pebble and his enforcer Mark Hall, aka The Winkler, as they seek to make their fortune through property deals. Looking 40 years into the future the nightmare vision of genetic manipulation to keep people below 4ft in height, thus enabling more to be housed in the building land available, is presented: surely businessmen couldn't become that cynical and manipulative? As the now knighted Sir John continues to amass his huge fortune, the song ends with a hint that maybe there's more to life than wealth, as Satin Peter (Saint Peter?) urges Pebble to look towards higher things.Musically the song begins explosively and Pebble's lines are all delivered with energy and purpose. The Winkler, by contrast, is smoother and oilier, and the bemused tenant, Mrs Barrow just befuddled. The change in musical temperament helps to give the story greater substance, and the instrumental passage mid-song provides a wonderful pastoral interlude where life seems to be settled and trouble-free, a situation soon to be shattered by the announcement from Genetic Control.

Can-Utility and The Coastliners delves into the realms of English history and the fabled account of King Canute, whose claim to be able to command the waves was proved to be fanciful. Here we are back to the 12-string sound that was a feature of the band's early work, which provides the background for the rest of the instrumentation. The instrumental section in the middle of the song is a wonderful combination of 12-string, bass pedals, Mellotron and drums which drives along with force and determination, as did Canute's misguided will. The music continues to build, as Hackett's guitar begins to dominate and the song reaches its dramatic conclusion.

In a first for Genesis the next track, Horizons, is a purely instrumental one, and in fact a solo classical guitar piece from Steve Hackett (thought here played on a steel-strung acoustic guitar). Clocking in at under 2 minutes this is a dreamy, meditative tune which makes interesting use of harmonics and is still an integral part of Hackett's solo shows almost 45 years on.

So with songs inspired by Science Fiction, history, capitalism and genetic experimentation so far, where could the band go next for grist for their compositional mill? How about to the apocalyptic vision of St John the Divine in Revelation, augmented with a little Greek myth and not a small amount of English whimsy? Such is Supper's Ready, an almost 23-minute piece which completes the album. I say 'piece': is it a single song, or is it an amalgam of seven shorter pieces run together carrying a connective narrative? Or maybe a single symphony in seven movements? Whatever! This is a song which has entranced, delighted and bemused for over 40 years, and is consistently rated as one of the greatest progressive rock songs ever made (it topped the recent Progzilla Radio listeners' poll, for instance). Supper's Ready takes you on an epic journey through the gentle, pastoral passages of Lover's Leap and The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man; the hard rocking interludes of Ikhnaton and Itsacon and their Band of Merry Men; the bizarre eccentricity of Willow Farm; the quintessentially proggy Apocalypse in 9/8; and the rousing denouement of As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (with its promise of more to follow: a promise fulfilled in 1976's Los Endos?) This is a song which has inspired many others to stray into long-song territory, for good or ill, and has spawned a few closely-inspired tributes/ pastiches/ copies (Grendel, for one...), though Genesis themselves were not to stray beyond the 12-minute mark subsequently.

This album marks a significant milestone in the band's development: their song-writing has reached a new peak with each of the band's members maturing as musicians. This would be the last album that was dominated as much by 12-string and Mellotron, as advances in synthesiser technology were to transform their sound in the coming months. With Foxtrot, Genesis were beginning to make an impact on the British music scene (though not as yet in the US) and this would continue in the next couple of years as their star rose steadily, and Foxtrot rightly holds a place at the top table of Progressive music as one of the best examples of the genre.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 3: Nursery Cryme

By 1971 the drummer's door had stopped revolving, and Phil Collins was safely established into the Genesis family. As the band's popularity grew they did more gigs: sadly this led to the departure of Anthony Phillips due to massive stage-fright, which forced the band to search for a new guitarist. Eventually the space was filled by Steve Hackett, and thus was born what became known as 'the Classic line-up' (although they only made 4 albums together).

The first of these was 'Nursery Cryme', an album which was to see the band increasingly stretching the popular song to greater lengths and in all kinds of wierd and wonderful directions. This work opens with the band's first foray into 10-minute+ song writing with The Musical Box. Like Stagnation on Trespass, this is a song with a back story, which is told on the sleeve notes - a macabre tale of nursery infanticide and ghoulish lust between Henry Hamilton-Smythe minor and Cynthia Jane De Blaise-William, which provided the inspiration for Paul Whitehead's iconic cover art. The opening musical phrases of the song are played on both guitar and piano giving it the feel of an old musical box, and from there Henry begins to tell his tale as 12-strings gently play behind the occasional ethereal wail of Hackett's electric guitar. The song at this point has an almost folky, pastoral feel, enhanced by Gabriel's lilting flute. As the tension, and Henry's desires, begin to mount, so the music picks up in energy & tempo, with guitars and organ bouncing off one another bolstered by Collins's drumming, until Hackett launches into a soaring, at times discordant solo before resolving itself into an almost panting guitar rhythm as the Musical Box plays its song. The song continues to build, with Banks' organ giving backing to the final crescendo before the final climactic end leaves us all breathless. The Musical Box actually began life as a demo of Anthony Phillips's, called F# (the opening track on his recent 'Harvest of the Heart' compilation), and the guitar solo was written by Phillips' short-lived replacement Mick Barnard, who was replaced by Hackett.

By contrast, For Absent Friends is a gentle word picture of a couple of widowed pensioners (one assumes) wiling away a Sunday evening sitting in the park before tottering off to church to remember loved ones lost. In two short verses and less than 2 minutes a story is evoked which could easily spark a short story, or even a novel (one of my many dreams): a wonderful gem of lyric writing, enhanced by the simple guitar and piano accompaniment. Although uncredited, this song marks Phil Collins' lead vocal debut for the band - a taste of things to come.

The Return of the Giant  Hogweed brings us another tale from the bizarre collective mind of the group, which finds humanity under attack not from rogue nations or even alien hordes but from killer weeds. The lyrics alternate between present panic in the face of this horticultural onslaught, with louder, more dramatic music; and back-story telling of how the mighty weed came to make the journey from the Russian hills to the leafy lanes of England, portrayed in a quieter vein, as if these are dreamy flashbacks. Musically the song is the first recorded instance of Steve Hackett using his two-handed tapping technique which was to become somewhat of a trademark of his, long before Eddie van Halen brought it to the notice of a wider audience.

The ebb and flow of the album brings us another quieter song next, Seven Stones, which tells of fate, chance, superstition and consequence as an old man reminisces on the vagaries of his life. The music trots along below the lyrics with running arpeggios from the organ alongside muted guitars, and during the choruses it seems to promise a little more before reining back to keep the mood more contemplative. The use of Mellotron here maintain the dreamy air to the end.

Harold the Barrel, which follows, is pure pantomime with a touch of George Formby. It is the story of the disappearance, possible madness and eventual suicide of Harold, 'a well-known Bognor restaurant owner', told as a news report. Deliciously British, equally deliciously barmy.

The last of the short, quiet songs, is Harlequin. This is the most Ant Philllips-like of the post-Phillips era, being a simple 12-string-heavy ballad with only the occasional flute, even rarer (if any) keyboards and no drums at all. The harmonies in the vocals are pronounced if not all that spectacular, and Collins' voice has a tendency to come to the fore in a couple of places.

For the final track the band turn to Greek myth for their subject matter in The Fountain of Salmacis. This is a saga of forbidden love between Hermes & Aphrodite, and unrequited love (on his part) between their offspring, Hermaphroditus and the naiad Salmacis. It begins with lilting, crashing waves of mellotron, organ, cymbals & guitar before Gabriel's voice comes in over the organ arpeggios, which then give way to the full band. Rutherford's bass line is noticeable here for its invention and relative complexity, and in this - along with Hackett's guitar adding fresh textures to the music and Collins' drums being less of a rhythm section and more of an instrument alongside the others - we begin to see the band coming into their own musically: it is remarkable to see how far they've come in just 2 years. The story builds as the demi-god is drawn into the nymph's trap, and the instrumental crescendo with the soaring solo keyboards is simply stunning. As the song reaches its resolution the full symphonic might of the band emerges, bringing promises of things to come.

This album, for me, takes the progression that the band made from their first to their second albums and moves it on further into the realms of monumental story-telling, instrumental experimentation and the beginnings of virtuosic dexterity. Not quite yet the finished article, Genesis have now pulled together a group of musicians and song-writers who will go on to carve a unique niche in the British and indeed the world music scene. The 'epic' is starting to become their forte: what is to follow in the next 3-4 years will cement their place in rock history, and songs such as The Musical Box, The Return of the Giant Hogweed & The Fountain of Salmacis will continue to be seen as classics of the genre (and still be played by Steve Hackett today).

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 2: Trespass

After failing to secure a hit under Jonathan King's wing at Decca, Genesis signed a new deal with Charisma Records in 1970, and so began their long association with the label that was to become one of the pioneers of the burgeoning Progressive Rock scene. 'Trespass', their first album for Charisma, saw a marked shift in the lyrical and musical content of the band's material and the development of a signature style that proved seminal for many acts that were to follow them over the years. It also saw the first of three album cover designs by Paul Whitehead, that were soon to become classics of their genre.

The line-up of the band remained unchanged from their debut apart from a change of drummer, John Mayhew moving onto the drum stool in place of John Silver. The overall sound is enhanced by a broadening of the instrumental palette, most notably the addition of Mellotron, a device which was to gain greater prominence in their music in years to come, and also by the development of a longer song format. On their debut, the longer song was 4:36; on this sophomore release the shortest song is 4:14. This enabled the band to develop their narrative lyrical style more, telling stories more than simply writing love songs. They continue to address philosophical concepts in their songs, and Scriptural imagery and allusion is never far away: "Yet in the darkness of my mind Damascus wasn't far behind"; "Once a Jesus suffered, Heaven could not see him"; and the song 'Visions of Angels' being just some examples.

The album opens with 'Looking for Someone', and the first thing we hear is Gabriel's voice cutting through the silence, gently backed by Banks' keyboards. The song ebbs and flows, with organ and piano struggling for dominance, guitars picking a gentle counter-melody and then building to a harsh crescendo, flute offering some gentle respite before the final denouement, and Gabriel's vocals offering soft plaintiveness and a harsher edge as the song reaches its climax.

'White Mountain' is the first of the Genesis story songs, a tale of internecine struggles within a pack of wolves. It opens with dreamy 12-string guitar and takes on a kind of folky air as the story unfolds, with organ & drums building the tension. The verses are nicely punctuated by dual 12-string and flute passages, and as the tale builds to its bloody climax Gabriel's vocals are heavily reverbed to give the King's proclamation a certain gravitas. Rather oddly it then ends with whistling and a kind of choral finale, assuring us that peace and stability have returned to the lupine world.

'Visions of Angels' is a song of longing for a love lost in death, a crying out to a god who seems to have abandoned the bereaved one and a falling away of old certainties in the face of tragedy. Of all their songs that still carry vestiges of inherited faith this is, in its pathos and pain, perhaps the most brutal, and I can't help but wonder at the events that sparked its writing. Musically it starts in a somewhat upbeat way with lilting piano leading to guitars and drums. The vocals seem a little backward in the mix, giving it an ethereal quality, and the harmonies in the chorus add to this other-worldly air. The music and the singing become a little angrier as the song reaches its end, particularly in the final instrumental passage, raging against particular pious platitudes (some believe that when they die they really live: I believe there never is an end; God gave up this world, its people, long ago; why she's never there I still don't understand). A rage against the dying of the light?

From a song of loss and death, we move to 'Stagnation', a tale of a man who buries himself many miles beneath the ground and becomes the only surviving member of the human race. Again Phillips' 12-string is very much in evidence, and there are some quite innovative keyboard effects in evidence. For the most part this is a quiet, reflective piece with some driving, up-beat sections particularly in the 'I want a drink' section. The song wraps with a motif which makes an appearance in later live versions of 'I Know What I Like'.

'Dusk', the short song on the album, is perhaps the one song most reminiscent of their debut, with its acoustic, psychedelic, almost Indian feel. This is Gabriel's voice at its most pure, and the other voices combine well in the second parts of each verse to produce something almost choral. The instrumental interlude of acoustic guitar and flute is quite buoyant and lifts the song from simple melancholy to something richer and fuller.

The album concludes with live favourite 'The Knife', quite a contrast in musical style to what has gone before. This is a full-on rocker, a song of revolution very much at odds with the pastoral tones that have preceded it, but showing the versatility and range of the group. Gone is the 12-string lyricism, replaced with distorted electric power chords and a driving rhythm, and Gabriel's vocals are raw, raucous and rousing: this is one to raise the roof and stir the crowds! A fitting finale!

This album shows a marked shift on the band's musical direction, one which would set them on the course towards cult status and eventual musical world domination. At the time of its release it was largely ignored, and even on its reissue in 1974 Rolling Stone described it as "spotty, poorly defined, at times innately boring, and should be avoided by all but the most rabid Genesis fans". Some 45 years on, I think that, although it is a product of its time, this collection stands up to scrutiny and sets the scene for some of the most ground-breaking and enduring works of the progressive rock canon that would follow in its wake.