[Note: Just as another reminder, this week’s Guide has been thoughtfully guest-blogged for you and me by Joe at Illicit Noise. Please join me in giving him a round of rousing applause. I’m not the world’s biggest Genesis fan — and cheerfully admit to having a soft spot for, yes, “Invisible Touch” — but this is all very interesting to me nonetheless. Also, it finally puts all these Genesis mp3s on my hard drive to good use. Enjoy! — j]

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first: Yes, Peter Gabriel used to wear a flower on his head (although his Britannia outfit was much more impressive). Yes, “Invisible Touch” is a pretty lousy song. Yes, Phil Collins had a hand in inventing that annoying booming drum sound strewn all over ’80s records.

While one or more of these may seem to disqualify them outright for serious consideration, Genesis alone made the transition from prog rock to pop seem fluid. Many earlier fans lost interest as songs dipped below the 6-minute mark, but the band picked up millions more along the way. Starting in penury in the early ’70s, they entered the ’90s selling out England’s Wembley Stadium several times over.

Along the way, Genesis scaled the heights of obscure pretensions (The Lamb entire) and plumbed the depths of mawkish twaddle (Hold On My Heart et al). At the advice of “The Cinema Show,” let’s “take a trip back…”

From Genesis to Revelation (1969)
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Formed from the debris of two groups of English boys from Charterhouse Public School, Genesis were a 5-piece trying to make folky pop music when they sent a demo to alumnus and pop star Jonathan King in 1967. He liked it enough to fund more demos and convince Decca to release their first single, “The Silent Sun” (download). True to all hard-luck tales, it sank like a stone.

(Creepy aside, given King’s legal troubles in the late ’90s: One of his columns in a newspaper after the single release described the group as “a group of young, fresh, 15-16-17 year olds.”)

Not at all dissuaded by their lack of success, the band continued to write and, in late ‘68, recorded From Genesis to Revelation. It’s a surprisingly mature album for a group of teenagers, and King’s orchestral shadings add color to songs like “Am I Very Wrong?” (download), but the band was still searching for an identity.

Trespass (1970)
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Jonathan King moved on after the debut album, but Tony Stratton Smith, founder of Charisma, took a liking to the band, and signed them to a multi-album agreement. The first fruits of that deal were recorded in the summer of 1970. Trespass shows a much more focused band, one that offered not only the lyrical passages of “Dusk” (download) but also the powerful churn of concert favorite “The Knife” (download).

The band experimented with longer songs and concentrated on stories like “Stagnation” (the last man left after the Bomb falls) and “White Mountain” (a rebellious wolf!) rather than conventional love songs. The instrumentation was lush, full of organ and Mellotron. Genesis became part of the nascent progressive rock movement; it would take 10 years and a thorny divorce to return them to the simplicity of their first album.

Just before the album’s release, founding member Anthony Phillips left the band due to stage fright. Phillips continues to record solo material to this day, with the support of many of his ex-bandmates. He was replaced by Steve Hackett.

Nursery Cryme (1971)
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Much more important was the replacement of drummer John Mayhew with Phil Collins. While Steve Hackett’s textured guitar work helped shore up the loss of Phillips, Collins anchored the rhythm section and fleshed out the vocal sound, increasing the band’s live power significantly. That power is demonstrated ably in “Return Of The Giant Hogweed” (download) from their third album, Nursery Cryme.

Tracks like “Harlequin” (download) stray back into the lilting folk of the first two albums, and Collins makes his lead vocal debut on “For Absent Friends.” The album still bears the marks of English schoolboys depending on Greek mythology like “The Fountain of Salmacis” for subject matter, and a couple songs are too twee by half, but despite the thin production, it’s clear the compositions were getting more intricate and the playing tighter.

The band were ready to call it quits, but Nursery Cryme proved a fluke hit in Italy, where they took their prog really seriously. (Witness the riots that ensued when Van Der Graaf Generator toured that same year.) With renewed vigor, the band made their boldest move yet.

Foxtrot (1972)
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Foxtrot contains the first real landmark for Genesis in prog, “Supper’s Ready” (download). A well-ordered jumble of songs and keyboard solos tied together by Gabriel’s vision of the apocalypse, the song’s journey through the wasteland and on to redemption made it a mainstay of the band’s shows up through 1982. For the first couple tours, they’d end with it, and in the final part, Gabriel would ascend to the ceiling while bathed in pure white light and clutching a fluorescent bulb. Quite a sight to behold, no doubt.

The rest of the album suffers in comparison, but only just. The band were getting much better at writing both intricate stories like “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” (download), and charging riff-based songs like first track “Watcher Of The Skies.” Even if the words didn’t make sense, the band knew how to play.

Live (1973)
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Genesis always claimed they were much better live than any studio album demonstrated, and their first live album, recorded in February 1973, confirms that assertion. Their sound, delicate and thin on the three previous albums, grows muscles and guts in a live setting, beginning with the show opener, “Watcher of The Skies” (download).

As the band honed their playing through live performance, Gabriel became an increasingly magnetic front man. Electronic tuners being unheard of, the guitars, mellotron, etc. had to be manually tuned, leading to big dead spaces between songs. Nervously attempting to fill that time, Gabriel started telling stories. Soon, the stories took on a life of their own, becoming as much a part of the show as the songs.

One of the most popular stories was that of Cynthia, Henry, and an ill-fated game of croquet. Illustrated on the cover of Nursery Cryme, the story was also the inspiration for the powerhouse “The Musical Box” (download). The intertwining guitars and multipart arrangement built to a thundering climax.

As Gabriel got more comfortable, he started wearing costumes for some of the songs, including an old man mask for the second half of “The Musical Box” and the red dress and fox head that shows up on Foxtrot. The band were also making great use of lighting. The front cover of Live shows the costume for “Supper’s Ready.”

Live was supposed to include that song, but a double album from a relatively unknown band, let alone a three-sided one, would’ve been a money-loser. What’s on offer is still a great record of a band that knew its strengths and played directly to them.

Selling England by the Pound (1973)
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After four years of writing and touring, Genesis were worn out. They were playing to full theaters in England and Italy, but had yet to make a dent in the US. The exhaustion is clear on Selling England by the Pound (named after a Labour Party slogan of the time), as two of the eight songs, “Firth Of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show,” are keyboard/guitar solos with some desultory lyrics. Be that as it may, the playing is still phenomenal. Pay particular attention to the drum work on the second half of “Cinema Show” and Hackett’s solo on “Firth.”

As its title indicates, Selling England is the band’s most British album. The lead track, “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” (download), mentions the Wimpy’s hamburger chain, Green Shield stamps, pantomime characters, and “Old Father Thames,” while the music whiplashes between throbbing guitars and pastoral mellotron choirs.

Somehow, the band managed a hit single in the British charts with “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” (download), based on the painting that would grace the album — a gardener napping on a park bench. Never let it be said the English don’t have a strong sense of whimsy.

Selling England features two other noteworthy songs: “More Fool Me,” the first song of thwarted love sung by Phil Collins (who would go on to champion the genre), and “The Battle of Epping Forest,” the only (one hopes) prog song ever written about a turf war between two East End gangs.

It was during the recording of this album that the core of Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins began to form. They generated most of the backing tracks by jamming when Hackett & Gabriel weren’t around. This was the beginning of the fracture that would cause Hackett’s defection.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
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How to follow a hit single? How about a completely inscrutable double album about a Puerto Rican thug lost in the underworld? Even better, how about going on the road and performing the entire thing before it’s released to record stores? What’s the worst that could happen?

After the release of LIVE, Gabriel was approached by film director William Friedkin to collaborate on a project. At the same time, Gabriel’s wife gave birth to their first child prematurely, and the baby girl had to spend quite some time in the hospital, so he was extra itchy to take a break.

The rest of the band were having none of it, so Gabriel brokered a deal: he would get to write the lyrics for the next album, and it would be a concept album, topic of his choosing. The story, such as it is, begins in New York City with the title track (download) and our hero Rael being dragged into a subterranean world of caves, rooms, blind women, and venereal snakes.

Because the music was composed mostly by Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins, there’s less guitar than on previous albums. In fact, keyboards and bass comprise the vast majority of the sounds. Gabriel’s flute parts, growing rarer and rarer as his frontman duties increased, are almost non-existent. The band still knows how to rock, though, especially on “In The Cage” (download) and “Back In NYC.”

As a whole, The Lamb is a muddle, with three sides of great music stretched to four, and a “plot” that isn’t. There are stretches of great beauty (”The Lamia” and “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats”) and strangeness (”The Waiting Room”), but 100 minutes is a long time.

Genesis Archives, Vol. 1: 1967-1975 (1998)
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To cap off the folly that was The Lamb, the band played it beginning to end on their 1974-75 tour, finally offering “The Musical Box” and “Watcher Of The Skies” as encores for the faithful. The first Archives 4-disc set devotes the first 2 CDs to one of those performances, so you too can feel like those fans must have — confused and ripped off.

Why? Genesis were not known for great in-concert spontaneity. The setlist is, well, The Lamb in its entirety, sounding pretty much like the studio album did, with this caveat: The performance is from a concert taped for radio, but the band claimed that the vocals weren’t right, so Peter Gabriel re-recorded them in 1998. His voice has changed in the intervening 23 years, and not for the better.

The real gems are on discs 3 & 4, which feature live material from Selling England and Foxtrot (including “Supper’s Ready”), b-sides never released on CD (”Twilight Alehouse” [download]), and a full disc of pre-Trespass demos like “Pacidy” (download). You can hear the band developing its style, and mark what Jonathan King brought to the table.

The last date of the tour for The Lamb was canceled, and Gabriel left the band. Sounds like a recipe for demise, doesn’t it?

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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