As far as prog rock goes, I prefer Jethro Tull, East Of Eden, Atomic Rooster, Wishbone Ash - all artists at the rockier or folkier end of the genre. Although Genesis were rockier than, say the keyboard-dominated giants ELP or Yes, there was just something about their lyrical oddness and perceived intellectual smugness that rubbed me up the wrong way. Oh, and, as was often the case, I hated with a vengeance the boys at my school who liked them, boys who invariably got A+ in Mathematics, Latin and Chemistry.
I went on to like singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel's solo work, however, so here I am giving him and his old proggy mates a chance. I apologise in advance to Genesis followers for whom these albums mean so much for my possible negativity but I am trying to be open minded in dealing with the work of a group who I have always hated. Maybe time has mellowed my feelings - let's find out.
From Genesis To Revelation (1969)
Where The Sour Turns To Sweet/In The Beginning/Fireside Song/The Serpent/Am I Very Wrong/In The Wilderness/The Conqueror/In Hiding/One Day/Window/In Limbo/Silent Sun/A Place To Call My Own
This, like the sixties-released debut albums from many bands (The Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Ten Years After and Yes to name a few) was totally unrepresentative of their subsequent career. It was very much a product of its time, with a poppy but psychedelic feel - produced by Jonathan King - and it carries with it an endearing youthful innocence. Importantly, the lush strings were added after the songs had been recorded at King's behest, to the annoyance of some of the group. Reviewing it is like writing about a separate group. I bet there are loads of Genesis followers who hate it.
Amazingly, the group were still at school when they recorded the album. Given that information, I have to say that it really is quite precocious.
Where The Sour Turns To Sweet is a syrupy, string-orchestrated piece of late sixties intellectual pop featuring some bold brass breaks and an instantly recognisable Peter Gabriel vocal. It has a dreamy, vaguely psychedelic air to it. Very late sixties. As too is the uptempo bassy psych pop of In The Beginning, which sounds like one of those tracks you would find on a Californian garage rock 67-68 compilation. It's actually really good in that sort of way. The string-backed and slightly twee Fireside Song is nothing like Genesis at all - people would be pushed to identify it as them if they didn't know.
I really like the melodically bassy The Serpent - all very freaky and mysteriously psychedelic. Check out that swirling organ sound and Gabriel's breezy sixties vocal. The quiet Am I Very Wrong is very hippy-trippy and In The Wilderness, with its catchy, poppy chorus, is just so of its time, although the mystifying lyrics are a strong portent of things to come.
The Conqueror is great, a really delightful little piece of surprising pop. Fantastic sixties freaky pop - I love it. It should be on any best of Genesis playlist but never is. Not quite so good is the slow string-driven ballad of The Hiding. One Day is a beguilingly beautiful and also entrancingly lively and clever pop song. Listen to those sixties Beatles-esque brass breaks, though. More lovely horn work is to be found on the sleepy, melodious Window.
In Limbo sounds like Traffic meeting the Tijuana Brass and is again a track with a real period appeal that I cannot help but like. The romantic pop of Silent Sun was the band's first single and was said to be an imitation of The Bee Gees' contemporary sound. I can hear what people mean when they say that, especially Gabriel's quavering voice. Nobody would think this was Genesis in a million years, would they? The album ends with the reflective and very Gabriel A Place To Call My Own.
The album was not a success and the group, possibly influenced by their parents, split in order to continue with their education. King, frustrated at their turning away from chart-oriented pop, washed his hands of them. The album has since been disowned by the band. A new Genesis would soon be born.
Looking For Someone/White Mountain/Visions Of Angels/Stagnation/Dusk/The Knife
Needless to say, within a few months the group decided to pursue music on a full-time basis and the result is a complete and utter sea-change. Gone is the psych pop and sweet strings, replaced by a six track album possessing a huge bass and drum sound and Gabriel given free reign compositionally and lyrically. How a group could change so much, so quickly is remarkable.
New drummer John Mayhew played on his only album and I think he sounded really good, despite the band being unsure (they replaced him with Phil Collins before recording the next album). Apparently he lacked confidence - it doesn't sound like it to me, his sound is full and muscular.
Looking For Someone is as far removed from the debut album as was possible to be. It is a marvellous piece of heavy rock meets intellectual arty proto prog. The drum sound is awesome and Gabriel's use of the flute is inspired. The keyboards are great too, as is the deep bass. Inspired by groups like King Crimson, it really taps into the contemporary and burgeoning extended, tempo-changing prog rock thing along with the similarly period desire to be folky. I have to admit to a real liking for this track.
White Mountain is very typically early Gabriel and once more has an appealing vibrancy to it, together with some folky acoustic guitars. Again, the flute is nicely used. The track becomes a bit directionless by the end, however, as if the tempo and mood was changed just for the sake of it.
Visions Of Angels has a lovely piano sound to i and features another archetypally intriguing Gabriel vocal and lyrics. It sounds a lot like material he would release in his later solo career. The track mixed late sixties melodic dreaminess with an early seventies rock power. It had been recorded for the previous album (you can sort of tell) and was embellished considerably here, with Beatles and Beach Boys influences floating around.
Stagnation is quite Yes-like in its acoustic melodiousness and started to display more prog proclivities for changes of momentum during the same song, from big and heavy to reflectively quiet. Gabriel's voice also has that distinctly prog feel to it - difficult to describe but I'm sure you know what I mean.
The ethereal, acoustic Dusk also reminds of parts of Yes's work. The album ends with long time live favourite The Knife, which is deliciously heavy, pounding out of my speakers like a sledgehammer. Gabriel is full on hammy and theatrical too and the keyboards are pure Deep Purple. The flute is pure Jethro Tull too. Good stuff. I can go quite a long way down the road with this. This track is raw, creative and powerful as is the overall feel of the album. There is a raw vigour to it that I can can appreciate, for sure. Indeed, this album's heaviness attracts me more than much of their later work. It's funny how a non-fan like me finds themselves preferring albums that most fans don't rate so highly.
Nursery Cryme (1971)
The Musical Box/For Absent Friends/The Return Of The Giant Hogweed/Seven Stones/Harold The Barrel/Harlequin/The Fountain Of Salmacis
This was the first Genesis album to feature Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett on lead guitar. Their prog rock inclinations were really beginning to make themselves known now, as well. As I go on to say in later reviews, Collins was also one hell of a drummer and he proves it on this album.
The Musical Box is a ten minute, beguiling narrative number that flows over with proggy pretensions, both musically and lyrically. There is a folkiness to it and a vocal harmony structure at times that must have influenced Queen. It is clearly a track that has a lot about it, but it just leaves me a little cold. It is not a track I find myself wanting to return to, although the bit where the guitars and drums really break out just coming up to four minutes is superb - really rousing and showing that Genesis did actually know how to rock. Check out Tony Banks’s Deep Purple-esque organ work too. Hackett’s guitar soloing ain’t half bad either.
For Absent Friends is a brief, acoustic and very McCartney-esque number that features Phil Collins on vocals for the first time while The Return Of The Giant Hogweed is a solidly rocking cornerstone of the album. It rocks in muscular Deep Purple style and cries out for a more powerful voice than Peter Gabriel’s thin, reedy offering. I love its riffy power, though, and Hackett’s fuzzy guitar near the end is a real joy too.
Seven Stones sounds very Beatles to me, but again I find Gabriel’s vocal wanting. It definitely improved as he matured. Lyrically, it is somewhat hackneyed - “I heard the old man tell his tale” is such a proggy line too, isn’t it? Nevertheless, the sheer power of the sound near the end of the track is great, I have to say.
Harold The Barrel sounds like one of those quirky songs that The Who used to come up with in the late sixties. It’s a silly song, let’s be honest. Mike Rutherford’s acoustic Harlequin reminds me a lot of something by someone else, but I can’t put my finger on what. Something by CSNY I think.
The Fountain Of Salmacis is the album’s last big track and is King Crimson-influenced proggy chugger, enhanced by some captivating cymbal work from Collins. I love the rumbling, bassy bit at nearly four minutes.
This was a bit of a patchy album, built around three lengthy, creative bedrock tracks that stand tall as classics of their type, even I will admit.
Watcher Of The Skies/Time Table/Get 'Em Out By Friday/Can-Utility And The Coastliners/Horizons/Supper's Ready
After Nursery Cryme betrayed lots of prog instincts, this album incorporated many more of the genre’s idiosyncrasies. Many consider it to be the best of the group's prog era output.
Watcher Of The Skies, after a low-key keyboard intro breaks out into a beautifully bassy, Gabriel-dominated and deceptively heavy rocky number with Deep Purple overtones. I have to say that I really like this one. Mike Rutherford's bass is genuinely inspired on this, as indeed are Collins's drums. For some reason, Collins (like Sting) is an easy target for collective ridicule, yet he was/is a great drummer, something that is often overlooked. His work on this track is stupendously good.
Time Table is a beguiling slower but still dramatic number that I find myself liking more than I thought I would. There are hints of The Beatles in this, and Pink Floyd. I love the subtle bass and Tony Banks's beautiful keyboard bits.
Incongruously, the group of ex-public schoolboys decide to reveal a social conscience on the rock-opera strains of Get 'Em Out By Friday, which sees Gabriel adopting several different hammy voices on a tale of a council-led eviction of tenants of houses about to be demolished. It sounds like something Pete Townshend would have come up with. Musically, it is fine, with some fine bass and lead guitar, but the whole concept is unconvincing for me. The lyrics are too hard-hitting and real for a prog band - stick to the tried and trusted enigmatic intransigence eh lads? As I said, though, musically I quite like it. Gabriel is also (second to Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, of course), one of the best exponents of the flute in rock music.
The strangely-titled Can-Utility And The Coastliners is a typically overwrought and mysterious Gabriel number that again is not without its good moments, again in Collins's drumming. Horizons is a nice instrumental influence before we get to the big one.
Supper’s Ready is a twenty-three minute prog behemoth that pounds out of my speakers with a huge oopmh, but, unfortunately, just doesn’t really do it for me. Yes, it has a titanic sound, is chock full of innovation, Phil Collins’ drums are precociously good, as is the bass and Peter Gabriel’s vocals are typically enigmatic but there is no moment in it when I am moved, excited or inspired. Sure, I can appreciate many parts of it, but I like my music to take me somewhere higher, emotionally, and I just cannot achieve a connection to this, however hard I try. That is not to say that it isn’t any good, because it clearly is a special creation, but I just wonder where are the bits when the listener’s heart just soars. No doubt there are many, many Genesis aficionados who will say “it’s the bit at seventeen minutes” or “it’s the keyboard swirl at nine and a half minutes”, and that’s great for them, but I just can’t get there. Sorry. Personally, I consider it the worst track on the album, much preferring the old "side one".
Incidentally, I find it quite Beatles-esque in places, although maybe that’s just me.
While Genesis tapped into the prog rock thing for extended suites of varied music within one track, I really think that Supper’s Ready would have functioned better as four or five separate songs. You could say the same for the lengthy suites of Jethro Tull and Yes as well, mind. Indeed, Yes took parts of their suites and released them as singles on several occasions.
With this track, I find that I have lost interest after eleven minutes only to gain it back after eighteen. Maybe separate tracks would have stopped that happening, or maybe I’m just a non-proggy who doesn’t really get it and should stick to his Motown. That may well be true because although I have been enjoying appreciating the musical brilliance of prog rock recently, I find that when I return to pop, soul, reggae or conventional rock I breathe a sigh of relief and feel that I am enjoying music once more from the soul as opposed to intellectually appreciating it. There is a big difference in my emotional response.
Selling England By The Pound (1973)
Dancing With The Moonlit Knight/I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)/Firth Of Fifth/More Fool Me/The Battle Of Epping Forest/After The Ordeal/The Cinema Show/Aisle Of Plenty
Genesis decided to get all serious on this one, bemoaning the loss of traditional British folk culture to rampant Americanism and consumerism and produced an album that some seem to really love and others, particularly critics at the time of release, questioned. For me, musically, I find bits of it interesting but there is a bit of a contrived, cynical wryness to it that grates somewhat. It is said to embrace folk in its sound but I feel Jethro Tull did that far more effectively and to my taste.
Dancing With The Moonlit Knight is an impressive mix of folk, prog changes of pace and typical Gabriel lyricism. The instrumentation on it is superb, although Gabriel's delivery is a bit overwrought at times. The fast bit in the middle is particularly strong. I find myself enjoying it a lot, I have to say, despite its obvious bombast. It has some subtle folky bits that I warm to.
I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) was an unexpected and quirky hit single that I always liked for its very oddness. I still do. Tony Bank's Firth Of Fifth, at nine minutes in length, is a bit rambling and directionless for my liking, although its heavy bits are unsurprisingly powerful and the bass lines are superb.
More Fool Me is a short Collins ballad featuring him on vocals. Then we get one of those big Genesis album cornerstones - the military drum introduced The Battle Of Epping Forest. When it breaks out after just over a minute it seriously rocks, big time, with a great organ sound and Collins' drumming absolutely top notch. They are rocking again and I like it. I particularly like those quirky little guitar backing bits half way through, although Gabriel's "East End" voices are a tad embarrassing, aren't they?
After The Ordeal is a folky, Elizabethan-sounding instrumental that features some fine guitar soling at the end. The Cinema Show is another lengthy and quite appealing number with several bits that I warm to, particularly the keyboards, Collins's inspired drumming and the CSNY-inspired vocal harmonies and Aisle Of Plenty is a wry observation on the increasing proliferation of supermarkets.
Look, I think most readers will realise by now that Genesis weren't really my thing and there is no real way that this will get too many airings but I am certainly not blind to some of its good points, however. It is like a movie that I may watch once, think is ok, acknowledge its credibility, but not watch again. As I said before, musically it may intrigue me but it doesn't move me.
Next up for Genesis was the seemingly obligatory mid-seventies sprawling "concept" double album. Am I going to review that? Hmmm.