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 Steve 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.