Saturday, November 29, 2014

Genesis of a guilty pleasure: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway at 40

When I entered, as a career, the murky world of music journalism 28 years ago I attracted instant pariah status amongst older, more weathered colleagues on account of openly being a Genesis fan. 

My colleagues were baffled as to why such an 18-year-old pup should be into a hoary old prog rock band, and not the hipper fare of the day. Now, given that this was 1986, a year of No.1 singles by such whippersnappers as Diana Ross, Chris De Burgh, Billy Ocean and Cliff Richard, it's hard to know what contemporary taste had to do with anything. Of course, what I should have been into was the indie darlings of the day, Nick Cave, New Order, The Smiths or The Cocteau Twins. But, no. My musical tastes included this band of two halves.

40 years ago this month, Genesis released their seminal album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, regarded by some as 'their' Dark Side Of The Moon, their Quadrophenia. And with the Blu-ray Disc release of the BBC documentary Together And Apart, featuring the band's so-called 'classic' line-up in a room together, awkwardly discussing their shared history, it's time to reassess them.

The first thing to agree upon about Genesis - and it is one endorsed by the band and experts alike - is that they've never been cool. In their earliest, Peter Gabriel-fronted incarnation they lacked Led Zeppelin's rock'n'roll rawness, Pink Floyd's avante garde acceptability, or even Bowie or Roxy Music's art rock credentials (they were, though, fans of Bowie, and supported The Dame in March 1970 at The Atomic Sunrise festival at London's legendary Roundhouse). Even the Stones got away with a dreadful flirtation with disco. And at least ELO or Queen could always be branded as guilty pleasures.

By 1986, when I began to sharpen my pencil, they'd reached a peak of stratospheric success - and soon, saturation. Imagewise, they were a group of fortysomething Rockbroker Belt musicians, lacking neither the aesthetic appeal of younger stars or precious music press-approved artistic recognition. But they had still become stadium superstars. Such success had been a long time coming, but had accelerated with the 1980 album Duke delivering their first hit single in the US (Misunderstanding), and a year later with Abacab - a conscious effort to sound different - and released shortly after Phil Collins had landed his hole-in-one debut solo album Face Value.

The release of Invisible Touch in June 1986 came in the midst of Collins becoming one of the world's biggest pop stars (he remains today one of only three artists to have sold more than 100 million records, collectively in a band and as a solo performer, the other two being Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson). This, however, overwhelmingly overshadowed his origins as a truly gifted drummer, and his populist appeal became fused with that of the band he'd been a member of since 1970. Whether his Genesis bandmates liked it or not, Collins was drawing new fans on the back of his solo success - and his near-ubiquity in the mid-80s - performing twice at Live Aid, three hitfest solo albums including 1985's No Jacket Required, production and drumming jobs for just about anyone (Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Tears For Fears, Howard Jones), his US No.1 with Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey (Easy Lover), and even a proper acting role in an episode of Miami Vice.

Invisible Touch was their most commercially successful album yet, going straight to No.1 in the UK (when such an achievement actually meant something) and peaking at No.3 in the US, shifting 15 million 'units' worldwide and spawning five heavy MTV-rotated hit singles (including 'that' one with the Spitting Image puppets). In the same period, guitarist Mike Rutherford had broken US chart ground with his Mike + The Mechanics side project, while even old boy Gabriel rode the commercial wave for the first time with his most successful album to date, So and its Stax hats-off Sledgehammer.

It had never always been thus. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, released on November 18, 1974, confounded fans and critics alike - and still does. It was their sixth studio album since their Jonathan King-produced 1969 debut, From Genesis To Revelation, with its New York Mining Disaster-era Bee Gees pastiche The Setting Sun. By 1974 they had a built a reasonable following - obscurely and particularly in places like Italy and Belgium - and had even bothered the singles charts with  I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (though they bizarrely opted out of the promotional opportunity of performing it on Top Of The Pops - it ended up being danced to by Pan's People...). 

They had enjoyed some critical acclaim, and some commercial success, but they were still regarded as interesting, rather than essential. Albums like the heavily King Crimson-influenced Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound  - with their wiggy keyboard solos, brilliantly obtuse guitar riffs, 'dawn of Time' Mellotron expanses and whimsical lyrics - leaned more to Lewis Carroll and Tolkien than the American blues-based rock and roll that the mainstream was into. These records were brilliantly clever - but perhaps too clever.

The Lamb didn't necessarily change their commercial fortunes, but it consciously moved them into an earthier musical approach without totally abandoning the obscure time signatures and fantasy themes of their previous recordings. 

It was a concept album, constructed around the story of tough Puerto Rican, Rael, getting sucked into a New York fantasy underworld. Narratively, it pitched somewhere between West Side Story and King Lear, with Gabriel branding it "a kind of punk Pilgrim's Progress", an interesting reference point, given that punk was stirring in 1974 New York. To consider The Lamb the origin of punk might be a stretch (and an irony, given that Genesis were often cited by British punk bands as the focus of their ire), but Gabriel's description fits. 

Songs like its title track, as well as Back In N.Y.C. and The Broadway Melody Of 1974, have an attitude at the polar opposite of the almost-Dickensian themes of their previous work, while in the album's single, Counting Out Time they tackled sexual experimentation in a manner that ten years later Frankie Goes To Hollywood earned a Radio 1 ban for.

As with any double-concept album, there are good points and bad points. Brian Eno's guest appearance, applying his 'enossification' (essentially a lot of weird noises) on The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging, which closes Side 1 of the first vinyl disc, is one of the less obvious plus points (in return for Eno working on The Lamb, Collins was 'loaned' out to Eno for a drum session). For the live shows of The Lamb, Colony Of The Slippermen would find Gabriel playing the Slipperman 'character' dressed in an oversized rubber costume covered in what looked like sweaty testes of varying sizes. Infamously the suit restricted both movement and the singer's ability to sing into a microphone, creating no end of frustration for the other band members.

The Lamb has, however, plenty of gems, too. Carpet Crawlers is a piece of understated beauty that builds from the quietest of arpeggiated electric pianos to a choral crescendo, and remained a live favourite for the band for many years after. The Waiting Room evolves from a swirling pool of nefarious noises to a triumphant groove, intentionally marking a transition from dark to light, while IT, the last track on Side 4, gallivants the entire concept - and Rael's journey - to a satisfying conclusion. Back In N.Y.C. - which was covered by no less than Jeff Buckley - blasts out of the beginning of Side 2, all street and 'what of it?' bravado, while In The Cage remained a justifiable live favourite throughout the band's post-Lamb career.

Of course it's too long - what concept album isn't? And parts of it are just bonkers. But then in 1974 you could make overlong, bonkers concept albums. And while The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway today is still far from a favourite album of all Genesis fans - from any of the band's respective eras - it deserves to be recognised more highly as one of the albums of the early 1970s.

"It wasn't," Collins has said, "a record company album", but then Genesis weren't signed to a normal record company: Tony Stratton-Smith, the former sports journalist turned bon viveur founder of Charisma Records famously gave them free reign and an open cheque book to make music not limited by the expectations of a fanatical accounting department, as is so common today in the record industry. Not a great business model, mind, but an admirable spirit towards artistic stewardship.

Intended to be, from the outset, a double album that allowed the band to produce something more creatively extensive, The Lamb ended up creating tensions that almost ended Genesis for good, and saw Gabriel leave at the end of the 1975 tour in which they played the album in its entirety.

It was a situation very prescient of Roger Waters' acrimonious split from Pink Floyd half a decade later: a double-concept album, that separated the singer and main songwriter from the other band members, but established an epic in the canon in the process. For The Lamb, Gabriel had taken on writing the story concept and the lyrics, with Rutherford, Collins, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett working almost in isolation on the music. 

Part of the album was recorded at Headley Grange, a somewhat dilapidated Hampshire stately home where Led Zeppelin had recorded parts of their fourth album, including Bonzo's legendary drumming on When The Levee Breaks. It was hardly the ideal of 'getting it together in the country' as the house had a reputation for being haunted and, as Genesis discovered when they turned up, infested with rats feeding on the waste that previous bands had not bothered to clear up. More gruesome details spared.

Somewhere in all of this Gabriel had had his head turned by Hollywood director William - then a hot property following The Exorcist - who'd been interested in the singer's abilities as a story writer (the back of their 1973 Genesis Live album contains one of the surreal and mostly improvised tales Gabriel would tell between songs while the band endlessly retuned their 12-string guitars). Around the same time his first daughter was born, but with a very difficult birth, leading to frequent studio absence which, to the-then still young group, placed further strain on the band dynamic.

Group  politics in the classic Genesis line-up were always a thing, and rooted in the band's origins. Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks, along with original guitarist Anthony Phillips, formed Genesis at Charterhouse, the English public school more used to turning out high court judges, diplomats and cabinet ministers than rock bands (the teenage Rutherford had his guitar confiscated when schoolmasters considered it a symbol of long-haired rebellion...). 

With their classical education and somewhat refined upbringing on the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire borders, their teenage rebellion was a lot different to that of their heroes, The Beatles, growing up in Liverpool, and maturing on Hamburg's ReeperbahnThey were all, though, fans of Fab Four, as well as the Stones, The Who and other contemporaries. Gabriel was also a huge fan of Otis Redding (he still cites a 1967 Redding show at Brixton's RamJam club as his all-time favourite gig). Banks was the classically trained pianist, while Phillips and Rutherford developed a unique telepathy through their beautiful and at times ethereal 12-string sound. 

Phillips left in 1970 after struggling with stage fright. At the same time, the band went through - in a somewhat Spinal Tap manner - a sequence of drummers. And then came Collins, the stage school-trained former child actor from Hounslow. Famously Collins arrived early for his audition at Gabriel's parental home in Chobham, Surrey, and was dispatched to the swimming pool where he listened to all the other auditionees and noted their errors. He aced the audition. Rutherford is said to have worn a smoking jacket.

Then, in early 1971, guitarist Steve Hackett joined, bringing in a highly innovative playing style (face facts, Eddie van Halen, it was Hackett who invented the 'tapping' technique!) along with a darkly aloof nature , though this was more to do with being a somewhat reserved individual - even by this group's standards of English reservedness -hidden behind a thick beard and even thicker glasses.

Gabriel and Tony Banks had been close friends at Charterhouse, but their individual stubbornness was often the source of tension (Hackett maintains - semi-jokingly - that a lot of this was rooted in unresolved classroom squabbles). 

Collins, with his cheeky-chappie end-of-pier schtick provided much-needed levity. Crucially, he applied a jazzier, more soulful drumming style which also helped loosen things up. People do tend to forget, when razing him for apocryphal tales of divorce-by-fax and mis-associated politics, that he was a truly exceptional drummer, better by far than a Moon or a Bonham.

The Lamb, Gabriel's eventual departure, and the album's exquisite 1976 follow-up, A Trick Of The Tail, introduced Collins - reluctantly - as lead singer, and effectively started the journey that would lead to the dizzy heights of global superstardom ten years later. With Hackett leaving after 1977's Wind & Wuthering album (another creative high point) and the landmark live album Seconds Out, the Banks/Collins/Rutherford three-piece set about transforming into a pop-rock band with their hit ballad Follow You, Follow Me from the ...And Then There Were Three album, with Duke following (an album that heavily influenced Keane, it would appear).

Whether they like it or not, and whether their fans like it or not, Genesis have always been a band of two halves. Gabriel's departure in 1975 to "either do a Bowie, a Ferry, or a furry boa and hang myself with it" marked a thin but eventually significant rubicon. Shorn of Gabriel's vision, the new four-piece Genesis found a warmth that had rarely existed before. Collins is understandably reluctant to be seen as the reason for it, but his stage persona and natural charisma connected with audiences in a manner Gabriel's eccentricity and bizarre costumes hadn't. But it wasn't just the singer - musically, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering evolved the band sonically.

With hit singles - romantic hit singles - their following changed again, with audiences no longer comprised of intense men in army-surplus greatcoats furiously taking notes, but including, you know, girls. Eventually they'd evolve fully to become the wacky MTV funsters of the 1980s (Collins, the former child actor, may have been cut out for turns as comic Southern preachers and Mexican bandidos, but the clinically reserved Banks and the admiral's son Rutherford always looked mortifyingly awkward in those videos).

What didn't change, indeed, what has never changed, was their reception from  certain sections of the music press. But here's the thing: as I later discovered, the very post-punk writers who castigated me for being a Genesis fan at 18 also routinely had albums like Nursery Cryme and Selling England By The Pound in their collections, usually alongside Dark Side Of The Moon and at least one King Crimson record. 

Punk was supposed to have done away with bands like Genesis, but in truth it wasn't prog rock, per se, that punk hated, it was the gargantuism of mid-70s rock in general. The mountains of cocaine, the immense distances formed between band and fan by playing giant American arenas, and tours judged less on their artistic merit as the number of juggernauts and Boeing 707s needed to transport everything and everyone. 

Clash drummer Topper Headon did, once, come up to Phil Collins at an airport and declare him to be cool. Lord knows what Headon was on at the time, but it's a small indication of the fact that Genesis in general have been partly victims of their own success, and partly victims of people not bothering to give proper consideration to their music. Yes, the early albums had songs as maddeningly bonkers as their later work could been infuriatingly trite. But in any of their so-called eras, there is music to savour, music which, with objective appreciation, could compete favourably with the Englishness of Blur, the jazz chops of Weather Report, or, dare I say it, spirt of The Clash. 

Don't believe me? Go to Spotify and find out. And if liking Genesis is still a guilty pleasure, it's not one I'm ashamed of. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said as always, Simon. The Lamb will always be my favorite album from any group, based on the number of times it has kept me company and my continued emotional attachment. Brilliant musicianship and haunting themes. We all have all loved you, Rael, and I'll never be ashamed of it either.