Genesis is a band worthy of study because their work combines the best and worst tendencies of progressive rock. In the four albums featuring the “core” band (Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), you will hear both stunning masterpieces and some of the most pretentious nonsense imaginable. Peter Gabriel in particular will drive you mad, as he careens from brilliance to preposterousness on a single album, a pattern he would reliably reproduce throughout his solo career. The musicians who weren’t front-and-center (Steve Hackett, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) were quite gifted, their talents apparent even when the music seemed unfocused. And believe it or not, Phil Collins, who later made a career out of worming his way into the hearts of millions of underfucked housewives, was an outstanding drummer, combining sensitivity, excellent timing and awesome power.
When listening to the core Genesis band, I always had the feeling that there was Peter Gabriel on one side of the stage and everyone else on the other. Even though I’m too young to have ever seen them live, Gabriel’s theatricality comes through clearly on their records, and while Gabriel could sometimes stay within role and deliver credible acting performances, he was frequently guilty of hamming it up at the expense of the narrative. Videos of Genesis performances certainly confirm this, and also make it obvious that Gabriel loved being in the limelight. It therefore came as no surprise when I learned that the creation of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was hardly a model of collaboration, as Gabriel, absent due to his wife’s difficult pregnancy, missed the composition and rehearsal sessions but still insisted on maintaining control over the lyrics. That disconnection led to a very curious outcome. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is often musically brilliant, but even I could have come up with a more coherent story line even after downing a hit of acid with a quart of Jack Daniels. The tensions from the experience combined with Gabriel’s urge to go solo led to a divorce. As it turned out, Genesis didn’t need Peter Gabriel as much as he thought they did: A Trick of the Tail may be less ambitious, but it’s a lovely little album. Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel released the first of his four untitled solo albums and also seemed better off for the change. “Solsbury Hill,” “Humdrum” and even the theater piece “Moribund the Burgermeister” are superb works on a pretty solid album. As for his and Phil’s later solo works . . . well, they made a lot of money.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Nursery Cryme served to solidify Genesis’ identity as an often gifted and frequently eccentric progressive rock band unlike any other. Their sound is certainly distinctive and the subject matter of their songs often out of left field. They loved flights of fancy, no more so than in the deceptive description of the story behind the opening track, “The Musical Box.” As depicted on the cover, the story is allegedly about a girl named Cynthia who whacks off the head of her friend Henry with a croquet mallet. According to Peter Gabriel’s macabre fairy tale, what happens in the song is Cynthia discovers Henry’s musical box, opens it and voilà, Henry returns as a spirit and begins to age rapidly—just like three-fourths of the away team on the original Star Trek episode, “The Deadly Years.” Henry turns into a seriously oversexed old fart who then tries to slip it to Cynthia, but a nurse enters and kills Henry by heaving the musical box at his noggin.
Nice try, but that’s not the story told in the song. The story is much deeper, richer and more compelling than the fairy tale would have you believe. On the other hand, I will concede that the symbolism is quite accurate. Allow me to give you an alternative interpretation of “The Musical Box.”
Cynthia, with her “fixed expression,” is the manifestation of the castrating bitch of literature: she’s Hemingway’s Brett Ashley; she’s Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched. When you look at it that way, the old man Henry becomes the archetype of male impotence. At the beginning of the song, he’s addled, infantile, addicted to his musical box and sensing that he is irreversibly slipping away from the living world:
Play me Old King Cole
That I may join with you,
All your hearts now seem so far from me
It hardly seems to matter now.
And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies.
But I am lost within this half-world,
It hardly seems to matter now.
The music in this passage is gentle, quiet and melancholy, with lovely cascading arpeggiated chords supporting Peter Gabriel’s restrained vocal, delivered partially in a whimpering falsetto with a tone of resignation and bitter hopelessness. The touch of harmony on “half-world” is chillingly beautiful. Henry begs to hear his song again and the music fades (reflecting the fade of Henry’s consciousness as he enters that “half-world”) into a slightly darker passage contrasting flute and an acoustic guitar duet dominated by the lower strings. The grim reality of death is approaching:
Just a little bit,
Just a little bit more time,
Time left to live out my life.
Following a sensitive and reflective musical passage and another request to hear his musical box, something wells up inside Henry—the life force, the urge to survive, the libido. With two distorted guitar chords forging the path, the song takes a stirring turn with Tony Banks’ entering with sharp chords on the organ and Phil Collins coming in with a perfectly executed drum skip and bash. The tension builds and the music absolutely soars with dark energy and a rising tempo to give Peter Hackett the space for a dramatic lead solo recorded with the panning constantly shifting channels so it sounds like his guitar licks are going through your head. I can’t say enough about Phil Collins’ drumming in this passage—his work on the toms, the bass drum, the cymbals come together to form one of the best coordinated drum segments I’ve ever heard.
The band ratchets down the sound to allow Henry to muddle through a passage from “Old King Cole.” Gabriel’s voice here paints a picture of a frail old man with tears running down his cheeks as he sings his favorite song for what could be the last time. The sudden awareness of the clock shakes him back to fear, to the urge to survive . . . the urge to be a man again:
But the clock, tick-tock,
On the mantlepiece—
And I want, and I feel, and I know, and I touch,
Her warmth . . .
The music explodes again, almost in rage this time, with Phil Collins bashing the drums with an intense, steady beat and Banks and Hackett beautifully weaving the musical motifs into a satisfying pattern. The burst of distorted dissonance towards the middle of the passage hints at the simmering anguish and repressed desire welling up in Henry’s soul. The music rises to a crescendo that leads to an intense passage of pounding drums, rising guitar licks and fuzz piano. The scene then returns to relative stillness, where Henry considers his situation:
She’s a lady, she’s got time,
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your face.
She’s a lady, she is mine.
Brush back your hair, and let me get to know your flesh.
Peter Gabriel’s enunciation of the word “flesh” is both thoroughly creepy and sadly pathetic. In the background, the organ reappears in less than full voice, and combined with Phil Collins marvelous cymbal work and occasional snare hits, we feel the tension begin to rise as Henry arrives at the end of his rope:
I’ve been waiting here for so long
And all this time has passed me by
It doesn’t seem to matter now.
Then, with a glorious drum roll, Phil Collins introduces the dénouement, and as the organ increases in volume and fills our ears, Peter Gabriel acts out the final scene:
You stand there with your fixed expression
Casting doubt on all I have to say.
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Why don’t you touch me, touch me,
Touch me now, now, now, now, now . . .
You stand there with your fixed expression. That’s the castrating bitch, that’s the Playboy centerfold who stares back at the lonely man as he coos at her and masturbates in a dingy room that hasn’t been cleaned in months. That’s the woman with the croquet mallet ready to chop off your head. I won’t go so far as to say the head in question is the head of the penis, for it could easily be interpreted as the killing of a man’s center of reason, leaving him the victim of his animal desires. Either way, emasculation is the result.
I realize I’ve spent quite a bit of space on “The Musical Box,” but there are so many more wonderful moments in this perfectly-constructed piece that I could have done a twenty-page essay. The dramatic precision of the arrangement is astounding, and Peter Gabriel’s acting performance is both nuanced and disturbingly empathetic: after all, Henry’s the classic dirty old man—why should we feel any connection to such a loser? Because he’s human, and when an actor can make you feel for the bad guy, that’s great acting in any field. It reminds me of what Javier Camara accomplished in Almodovar’s Hable con Ella: he made you feel sympathy for a hospital aide who was having sex with his comatose patients. All in all, I consider “The Musical Box” to be one of the great works in the history of rock music, progressive or otherwise. It never fails to move me.
Next in sequence is “For Absent Friends,” a pretty and touching vignette depicting the journey of a pair of widowers from park closing time to early-evening church services. The unrhymed poetry allows the authors (all the band members were nearly always listed as authors) some freedom to describe the evocative detail instead of having to squeeze the story into a strict metrical pattern:
Passing by the padlocked swings
The roundabout still turning
Ahead they see a small girl
On her way home with a pram
The dual acoustic guitars are perfectly matched, and Phil Collins does a fine job on the lead vocal, describing the widowers with a slight touch of gentle affection in his voice, especially on the core line: “Heads bent in prayer for friends not there.” The song is well-placed between the grand majesty of “The Musical Box” and the harder, edgier arrangement of “Return of the Giant Hogweed.”
“Hogweed” opens with Tony Banks running his electric piano through a fuzz box, playing with a whirling sense of urgency to alert the audience that the Giant Hogweed is about to conquer Britain! The joy of the song for me lies in the verses, where Genesis showed they were a more than capable rock band in the Tull tradition of hard syncopated rhythms. I love the absolute vengeful satisfaction in Peter Gabriel’s voice when he sings “Stamp them out!” The rest of the song is rather dull by comparison and the story of a plant infestation doesn’t quite live up to its satiric possibilities (it’s the same kind of insanity that leads American homeowners to poison lawns and groundwater in mad attempts to destroy weeds). The humor inherent in the situation never quite materializes and the song becomes a rather long and meandering composition lacking the thematic discipline of “The Musical Box.” Despite its weaknesses, “Hogweed” demonstrates Genesis’ willingness to search for subject matter in odd places, and I admire them for always trying the unexpected.
“Seven Stones” also never lives up to its potential; the opening line, “I heard the old man tell his tale” leads you to expect that a bit of wisdom will follow. Instead of wisdom we find a mix of incomplete mysteries, poorly-thought out symbols and punch lines with no punch. “And the changes of no consequence/Will pick up the reins from nowhere” fails to qualify as either meaningful or memorable couplet in any context. “Harold the Barrel” has a more interesting story, if you have the stomach for a restaurant owner who cuts off his toes and serves them to his family for tea. The populace is outraged and corners Harold as he sits on a window ledge high above the maddening crowd. The problem with Harold isn’t the lyrics; it’s the choppy, clunky rhythm, meandering melody and piss-poor mix that distract from the potential drama and humor of the piece.
“Harlequin” is a very interesting vocal duet that could have been even better if a little more care had been taken with the lyrics. The chorus is syntactically quite awkward, draining power from what should have been the clincher: “All, always the same/But there appears in the shades of dawning/Though your eyes are dim/All of the pieces in the sky.” Flip the second and third lines and delete the “but” and you have a more coherent verse. It wouldn’t have taken too much effort—and might have made the song even more interesting—to rearrange the music to fit the natural flow of the English language.
The Crimson-esque opening to “The Fountain of Salmacis” gives one another jolt of hope that something special this way comes, but this piece is a long way from the disciplined precision and musical excellence of King Crimson. The music completely fails to match the mood of the mythological tale, leaving one to conclude that the only possible purpose for this track was to advertise that someone in Genesis had read Ovid. The original tale is a tale of sexual merging (the event is what turned young Hermaphoditus into a physiological switch hitter), but the fact that the nymph Salmacis date-raped a young boy to achieve that merger is glossed over and horribly under-dramatized in the music. Instead, the song celebrates the superficial symbolism of unity, putting aside the inconvenient truth the merger was hardly voluntary and had to be enforced by the gods. In Genesis’ hands, the story is more Soviet than sexual. What should have been a song boiling over with erotic and moral tension has the embarrassing disappointment of a limp dick. I’d also argue that if you’re going to try to revive a myth, it is the responsibility of the author, poet or songwriter to make the link between the ancient myth and the modern moment. No such connection is made here except to the superficial “oneness” that had died sometime shortly after Woodstock. Even the opportunity to explore women’s equality along the lines of “You’ve come a long way, baby, you can be rapist, too!” was missed.
Nursery Cryme is a typical Genesis album, full of wonders and wondering what the hell they were thinking. When they were all on the same page, they were as good as it gets; when they were off, they were on another planet. The same pattern was repeated in Foxtrot, another album with a stunning opener (“Watcher of the Skies”) and some excellent material mixed with musical and lyrical cacophony. Still, I own several Genesis albums, so it’s obvious I find something appealing about the band, and rather than looking at Genesis as another example of progressive rock excess, I appreciate their efforts to try to expand rock possibilities. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not. The experimenter never succeeds 100% of the time, but we should be thankful they had the courage to try.
The marathon was starting to take its toll. “Only three left to go,” I told myself, trying to overcome the weighty tiredness that coursed through my body. The stress and strain of attempting to make it to the finish line was evident by the disappearance of the smile lines that normally grace my silky smooth complexion. I could feel tightness in my sufficiently ample chest, as if my athletic bra were either two sizes too small or had shrunk from the sudden appearance of perspiration from a body that rarely breaks a sweat. Looking towards the sky as I completed another stage, I thought, “It’s a beautiful day, only two more,” and felt my spirit rise in response. When I reached the final stage, however, I was dismayed, discouraged and discombobulated to find myself running through the mud and muck of a sudden rainstorm. The crowd had thickened, their vocalizations sounding like wild animals in the rain forest, their primitive tones filling my spirit with fear and loathing. I pumped my shapely legs as hard as I could but there were several spots where I felt ensnared as if I were running through quicksand. As I neared the finish line, the sounds of drums and an unintelligible chant surrounded me on all sides, enveloping me with an unspeakable terror. “So close, so far,” I whispered as the crowd pressed in on me from all sides. I called up every ounce of strength and courage I could muster, but the rain intensified, the mud turned into a black, viscous liquid, and as I felt myself falling into the abyss only a few strides short of the tape, I called out to the only person who could save me in this, my darkest hour:
“Iggy . . . Iggy . . . Iggy Pop . . .”
And as if by magic, the Woodstock album faded into silence and finally, finally, I could listen to some real, god-honest, fuck-me-in-the-ass rock ‘n’ roll for a change.
I was about halfway through The Psychedelic Series when I knew that the first album I wanted to hear when it was all over—-correction—needed to hear—was Fun House. It is the antithesis of psychedelia. None of that platonic love, love, love crap, but flat-out, no-holds barred songs about fucking. No sitars, no harpsichords, no vocoders—just bad-ass guitar, thundering drums, throbbing bass, wailing sax and howling vocals. Fun House is not only one of the purest rock albums in history, but one of the great fuck-to albums.
When I tell my partner to put Fun House on repeat mode to accompany the evening’s sexcapades, she knows she’d better take her vitamins, because I mean fucking business.
Contemporary reviews panned the album. Charles Burton’s unintelligible piece of self-indulgent tripe in Rolling Stone (where else?) contains the curious line, “They are so exquisitely horrible and down and out that they are the ultimate psychedelic rock band in 1970.” The reviewer on Melody Maker called it “the worst album of the year.”
My interpretation is that these writers did it in the dark with their eyes and ears closed . . . if they did it at all.
I also read several articles about The Stooges’ alleged anti-Semitic leanings, given credence by Ron Asheton’s adolescent rebel habit of wearing swastikas on stage. I fully understand and empathize with those who take offense to that. I ran into this crap all the time in my teenage years with the skinhead part of the punk scene (yes, even in the liberal Bay Area). My strategy was to avoid them, like I avoid all losers. Racists are as obsolete as dinosaurs, with brain-size to match, so there’s no point giving them any power by paying the slightest bit of attention to them. All I know is that Fun House contains no such nonsense: it’s raw, kinetic, animalistic rock ‘n’ roll that has had an enormous influence on the development of punk music, even if the length of the songs don’t comply to punk norms. Few people dismiss all of Shakespeare’s canon because of the anti-Semitic references in The Merchant of Venice, and only purists dismiss Mark Twain because of the uncomfortable parts of Huckleberry Finn. Shit, I’d never listen to blues or early rock ‘n’ roll if I insisted on strict adherence to feminist principles.
I think Iggy’s right-wing politics stink, too, but when I’m listening to Fun House, the political center of my brain is completely inactive. This is a record designed to stimulate the G-spot or whatever else you got down there. To get closer to the primal sound of their live performances, The Stooges, with the help of producer and former Kingsmen keyboard man Don Galluci, essentially wrecked the recording studio, ripping out baffles, soundproofing and isolators that clean up the sound but often denude it of its energy. Even with some truly superb panning and sound field placement by engineer Brian Ross-Myring, the tracks bleed and the heavy bass rattles the snare . . . and it sounds fucking fabulous. This was one great band hitting on all cylinders, and by all accounts, they were a hundred times better live.
The Stooges wanted to open the album with “Loose” but were overruled by the suits at Elektra in one of the few examples of helpful record company interference. You don’t open a fuck album with an all-out bash unless you’re into premature ejaculation, and “Down on the Street” simmers more than screams, even with Iggy’s animal growls and whoops. This is a great foreplay song—not the teasing, coaxing, whisper-sweet-nothings kind of foreplay—but the nipple-pinching, ass-slapping version marked by sudden shots of pain and pleasure hinting at the active volcano beneath the surface. While The Stooges keep driving this sucker, Iggy’s taking in the excitement of mating rituals on a hot night in the city:
Yeah, deep in the night I’m lost in love
Yeah deep in the night I’m lost in love
A thousand eyes they look at you
A thousand eyes they, they look at you
Where faces shine
A real low mind
I love feeling that “real low mind.” That’s when I’m in my element, when time is suspended and I feel waves of erotic excitement coursing through my body. The lyrics to “Down on the Street” may be simplistic, but when you’ve let go of civilized decorum and are really feeling the animal heat inside you, the language center of your brain obeys the call, leaving you capable of uttering only short phrases of titillation or delight.
Goddamn! One song and I need a cigarette!
The band amps it up on “Loose” following a killer intro of bashing drums and screaming guitar that ends with Iggy’s spoken “Oh, look out,” in a tone that sounds like he means it. The stark honesty of this song in contrast to the layers of meaningless meaning in the psychedelic era is as refreshing as it gets:
I took a record of pretty music
I went down and baby you can tell
I took a record of pretty music
Now I’m putting it to you straight from hell
I’ll stick it deep inside
I’ll stick it deep inside
‘Cause I’m loose, always
Hooray! A man who admits he’s a whore! Here Iggy Pop becomes the anti-Dion, embracing the ethic of Runaround Sue with a vengeance. In both pre-and-post liberation society, women who liked to fuck multiple partners were considered sluts while men who did the same were just doing what men do: sowing their oats. Iggy calls it like he sees it: we’re all whores! Let us set aside the misapplication of morality and embrace our essential whoreness! Instead of judging it, let’s celebrate it! As for the music supporting the message . . . well, Ron Asheton may have been an anti-Semitic asshole but the guy knew his way around the fretboard. He attacks the solos here with sadistic delight, supported heavily by Dave Alexander’s outstanding bass and Scott Asheton’s energetic, spot-on drumming. When it comes to bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t get much better than “Loose.”
Iggy said he was channeling Howlin’ Wolf while recording Fun House, and his primal vocal on “T.V. Eye” is the clearest manifestation of that style. Over raw and heavily reverbed guitar, Iggy screams, growls and grunts while drawling and twisting syllables to capture the rough, primitive feel of Wolf’s vocal style. The combination makes this track the most garage-like piece on the entire album. The lyrics are simple and sexually loaded; I’ve always interpreted the phrase “T.V. eye” to refer to the skin-penetrating effect of television cameras and lighting. When I have my T.V. eye on someone, I’m looking deep into their eyes or under their clothes because I want to see what’s beneath the surface, both body and soul. The lyrics here imply that the chick who is focusing her attention on Iggy is doing so while another guy is trying to engage her (“See that cat down on her back”). That’s a terribly naughty thing to do, but stealing a chick from another guy is also terribly titillating to a competitive male in heat.
Speaking of the relative morality in sexual interplay, in “Dirt,” Iggy confronts the specter of naughtiness that contaminates and distorts our erotic impulses and leads to the absurd situation where we feel a sense shame for doing what is entirely natural for a human being to do: fuck! Fucking is not dirty! Sure, you have to clean up afterwards, but you have to clean up after puttering around in the garden, and no one thinks you’re being nasty when you’re trimming the hydrangeas!
Ooh, I been dirt
And I don’t care
‘Cause I’m burning inside
I’m just a yearning inside
And I’m the fire o’ life
“Dirt” is the slow-dance song on the album, but it’s a grinding slow dance with absolutely no space between the bodies. Iggy sounds like he’s in an erotic trance, seasoning the vocal with random phrases, pauses and other interruptions that reflect the difficulty of capturing sexual tension in an intelligible fashion. Ron Asheton’s guitar solo probably expresses the experience better than the vocal—his licks spurt like flames of varying height and intensity as the lovers vary the dance according to the rise and fall of the orgasmic experience.
“1970” is a stutter-step basher about celebrating the new year with a great fuck. What would you rather do? Freeze your tits or balls off in Times Square or come to a climax at the stroke of midnight? I guess you know where I stand on this critical issue. What “1970” is most noted for is Steve McKay’s incredible tenor sax solo that dominates the extended fade. The saxophone was certainly not uncommon in the early days of rock, and I’ve always thought the instrument had tremendous potential in punk because of its growling and screaming capabilities. Unfortunately, there are very few examples of the saxophone in punk. Lora Logic integrated it with her punk-funk band and played sax in a few guest appearances; The Clash squeezed it in on London Calling; Sleater-Kinney used the sax to fill the soundscape on “It’s Enough.” McKay’s solo is la crème de la crème: his avant-garde and hard bop-flavored attack blends perfectly with the simmering chaos that always exists beneath the surface in great punk music.
McKay gets another turn in “Fun House,” providing counterpoint throughout the track. The effect isn’t quite as powerful as his sudden appearance on “1970,” but this is more of an ensemble piece guided by Iggy’s vocal than a saxophone concerto. I’ve always loved this track for its irony; a fun house is an experience of distortion, yet in the sexual context the “distortion” is the manifestation of deeply-held fantasies and desires usually repressed by cultural shame. I spend a lot of time in the fun house, so I feel very comfortable there, and my attitude is perfectly captured by Iggy’s use of a phrase normally associated with a baseball player who gives it his all—“he came to play.”
Callin’ all you whoop-de pretty things
Shinin’ in your freedom come and be my rings
Hold me tight! — callin’ from the fun house
Hold me tight! — callin’ from the fun house
Yeah, I came to play and I mean to play around
Yeah, I came to play and I mean to play real good
Yeah, I came to play.
To borrow another analogy from sports, when I fuck, I want to feel that I’ve “left it all on the field.” The Stooges nearly always do.
The album closer, “L. A. Blues,” reflects The Stooges’ avant-garde roots, a chaotic stew of screams, bashes, distortion and bass that I’ve always associated with the experience of multiple, simultaneous orgasms. I would, wouldn’t I? I’ve also found this piece to be an excellent accompaniment to whipping; the paradox of giving pain to the one you love to intensify the pleasure of both parties cannot be explained through linear thinking.
It’s funny how I stumbled onto Iggy Pop. Neither parent was a fan, but I heard about Iggy and The Stooges through my exploration of punk roots in my teenage years. I never followed up on that lead and didn’t hear their music until my last year of high school thanks to a rare family ritual. We were never that much into television, generally limiting our use of the boob tube to baseball, soccer and the occasional interesting piece on PBS. The only exception was that we would sit down together every week to catch the latest episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Someday I’ll do a whole piece on that obsession, but the salient piece of information is that Iggy Pop appeared in the role of an alien in one of the episodes. That simple act increased my interest in him a thousandfold, and that’s when I started to explore his music.
And as luck would have it, the first album I listened to was Fun House. Coming right at the time when I was really starting to manifest my dominant BDSM tendencies, I felt like I’d found my soul mate. The transparency, honesty and complete lack of shame about human sexuality was incredibly validating, and hearing that message couched in the musical language of proto-punk made it a seriously titillating experience.
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that Iggy had campaigned for Ronald Reagan for president. That kind of stupidity makes him completely unacceptable as a sexual partner, but I’ll take his music with me to any hotel, motel or dungeon any time to enhance the ambiance of my favorite art form.